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After partnership ends, clinics face off in neighboring Grand Forks County towns

Updated 1:58 p.m. March 28, 2014: Residents of two Grand Forks County towns will soon have two clinics in each place to choose from.

The longtime partnership between Valley Community Health Centers and Northwood Deaconess Health Center has split, with Deaconess opening its own clinic in Northwood, N.D., and planning another new clinic in nearby Larimore, N.D.

Valley Community Health, which is open to anyone but specializes in uninsured and underinsured patients, has clinics in Northwood and Larimore, and both clinics will stay open.

Both Northwood and Larimore have populations of about 1,000 people and are about 20 minutes away from each other.

And while Pete Antonson, CEO for Deaconess, said there are enough patients in that area for the new Deaconess clinics to succeed, Valley Community Health CEO Doug Jaeger Jr. said “it doesn’t make sense” to have two clinics in a small rural town.

“It’s not enough (patients) for two clinics,” Jaeger said.

Partners split

The Valley Community Health and Deaconess partnership ended in January when Deaconess terminated Valley Community Health’s lease for its Northwood clinic, Jaeger said. While the idea had been tossed around for months, the official meeting of lease termination came in mid-January, three days after Jaeger started as Valley Community Health’s CEO.

Before taking the job, Jaeger said, he knew about the possibility of losing the Deaconess lease in Northwood, but “I had hoped I could change their minds.”

Antonson said Deaconess officials made the decision mainly because Valley Community Health’s Northwood clinic could not properly support the Deaconess hospital, nursing home and emergency room in Northwood.

Jaeger said Valley faced recruiting problems in the rural area.

“It’s because it’s more and more difficult to recruit providers that want to do ER coverage as well as primary care coverage,” Jaeger said.

Part of the agreement between Deaconess and Valley Community Health was that Valley Community Health would lease clinic space from Deaconess in Northwood and it would have access to Deaconess’ hospital and lab testing resources while providing health care providers for the emergency room, Jaeger said.

But Antonson does not share Jaeger’s view on recruiting. It would be difficult for Deaconess to hire health care providers to only work at the emergency room because it isn’t busy, but it’s easier if those providers can also work in a clinic, he said.

At one point, there was only one provider to cover the Deaconess emergency room, which sees maybe one or two patients each day, but is open at all times, Antonson said.

The partnership also had Deaconess renting space from Valley Community Health at its Larimore clinic for X-ray and lab technicians to support the clinic, he said.

Jaeger said he tried to talk to Antonson about other options, “instead of two completely separate clinics.”

But another reason behind why Deaconess decided to open its own clinics is because it “completes” the health care service it has offered for years in western Grand Forks County.

With Deaconess hospital being in Northwood since 1902, “we’ve never owned our own clinic,” Antonson said.

Deaconess had offered to have both separate Northwood clinics housed in the same location, Antonson said, but Valley Community Health declined the offer.

Competition

Deaconess’ Northwood clinic has been open since Dec. 1, operating out of its hospital, Antonson said. It will move to the current Valley Community Health clinic location, which it owns, shortly after the lease officially ends in mid-April, he said.

Deaconess’ Larimore clinic — which Jaeger said is right next door to the Valley Community Health clinic — is planned to open June 1, Antonson said.

Although the problem of Valley Community Health not providing enough support to the Deaconess hospital occurred in Northwood, Antonson said, “we felt it was important for us to be in Larimore” because Deaconess has strong ties with that community. The health organization is owned by a group of churches, four of which are in Larimore, he said.

One nurse practitioner has left Valley Community Health for the new Deaconess clinics, Jaeger said.

In explaining how he thinks Deaconess will have enough patients to thrive despite Valley Community Health remaining in town, Antonson said the new nurse practitioner is bringing many patients with her.

“In a sense, we’re going into competition with each other,” Antonson said.

In larger markets, competition may be good, Jaeger said, but, “In these communities with the small populations, collaboration is very critical.”

“Nobody really ‘wins’ in the end (when small-town clinics compete), and who suffers is the patients,” Jaeger said.

Confusion

Both organizations will continue to have conversations on how to maintain some type of relationship, Jaeger said.

“We’re kind of working through those issues because we have differing opinions,” he said. “I don’t know how this will all shake out quite yet.”

Valley Community Health had to work quickly to secure a new clinic space for when the lease ends next month, Jaeger said. He hopes there won’t be a break in service for any patients, he said.

Some of the patients have been confused by what seems like a sudden break in a long-time, well-known partnership.

“There is a lot of uneasiness and a lot of questions,” he said. “(Deaconess) has been very aggressive in their efforts in marketing. We’ve tried to stay low-key and reassuring to patients.”

These problems in Northwood and Larimore have not affected Valley Community Health’s new downtown Grand Forks clinic, which is set to open sometime next month, Jaeger said.

Deaconess helped start Valley Community Health Centers in 2004, Antonson said. “Early on we were really very able to work very closely with them,” he said.

This story has been corrected. Only one nurse practitioner left Valley Community Health to work for the Deaconess clinic.

Charly Haley
Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.
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