Altru's past painted with mergers, doctor contributions and ties to the Vatican
Before two Grand Forks hospitals could merge together more than 50 years ago, leaders had to go to the Vatican to get approval. And leadership couldn't afford the land to unite the hospitals physically under one roof, so doctors and a clinic mana...
Before two Grand Forks hospitals could merge together more than 50 years ago, leaders had to go to the Vatican to get approval. And leadership couldn't afford the land to unite the hospitals physically under one roof, so doctors and a clinic manager footed the bill for the land purchase.
Two hospitals merging was enough to cause controversy, and Catholics and Lutherans coming together in the 1960s was almost unheard of, Altru Health System CEO Dave Molmen said. Yet that's part of the story of how Altru became one of the largest employers in North Dakota.
"They did something really great there," Molmen said of the doctors and clinic manager that came together to buy land for the current Altru facility. "It's a really great story about forming a new thing for the community from scratch."
Altru has plans to build a more-than-$250 million complex at its South Columbia Road campus, replacing the 41-year-old facility that sits on 90 acres of land, according to hospital history.
There were doubts the plan to buy land in the 1970s for a hospital campus would succeed, said retired Dr. John Lambie, one of the physicians who signed his name to the land purchase agreement. The 90-year-old said it was all done in the best interest of the community.
"I think we're proud we were able to bring something to the community and make our community better," Lambie said.
To the Vatican
The history of hospitals in Grand Forks dates back to 1892, when the first hospital was built. That was about 20 years after Grand Forks was founded and 11 years after it was incorporated as a city.
"By 1892, the community was getting to be a large frontier community that need a hospital," Molmen said.
St. Luke's Hospital, later known as Deaconess Hospital, was opened that year by Dr. J.E. Engstad and was the first to be built and owned by a Scandinavian, according to Molmen. It was sold to the Deaconess Corp. The hospital was Lutheran faith-based and was located in downtown Grand Forks.
St. Michael's Hospital, a Catholic facility, got its start in 1907, opening as a 60-bed facility near the Kennedy Bridge before moving to the former UND Medical School. The facility near the Kennedy Bridge is now known as Riverside Manor and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other care facilities began to crop up in Grand Forks, including the Grand Forks Clinic in 1940.
The three entities, along with the UND Medical Center Rehabilitation unit, began discussions in the 1960s about merging when the Deaconess was condemned by North Dakota Department of Health, Lambie said. State inspectors told then-Deaconess President Robert Jacobson the hospital would need to be replaced.
"That was the impetus for all of this," Lambie said, adding a long-range planning committee was set up to investigate options. "They decided if we were going to build a new facility, we should combine the two hospitals into one hospital, that that would be a much better thing for the community."
The act of combining Lutheran and Catholic hospitals needed approval from the Catholic Church, Molmen and Lambie said. They credited the merger to two former St. Michael's board members: former UND President Tom Clifford and Grand Forks attorney Tom McElroy.
"The pope had to approve that," Molmen said, adding the story goes that Clifford had connections in the Vatican. "Through their intercession, they made this happen."
The merger was legal in 1971 under the name United Hospital, but physically, the two entities remained separate for five more years.
Finding a location
Building a hospital downtown didn't appear to be a logical solution, Lambie said. Space for parking was limited, there wasn't much room for expansion and streets were narrow for traffic.
But downtown business owners and proponents were upset, he said. At the same time, proposals for Columbia Mall had surfaced.
"It was very controversial," Molmen said. "There were a lot of businesses downtown that were concerned."
"These people really felt threatened when both their medicine was going to pull out and they knew that retail was going to be a bad," Lambie said.
Leaders looked at various properties, including land where the Ralph Engelstad Arena now stands. They finally settled on land along Columbia Road near DeMers Avenue, which was, in Lambie's words, "out in the middle of nowhere."
The Hospital Board said it didn't have the money to buy the land, Lambie said. Eventually, about 20 doctors and the clinic manager came together and bought 250 acres of land for $750,000, according to a 1970 Herald article. That amount would be worth almost $5 million today, according to an inflation calculator from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The doctors also chipped in $250,000 for the hospital's construction. Current Chief Financial Officer Dwight Thompson said it cost $30 million to build, plus $7.4 million for equipment.
It was a foreign concept to create a medical park, and United Hospital attracted national media attention for the project, Molmen said.
"It's got that spirit of the organization," said Thompson, referring to Altru's mission of being backed by community.
Best interest of community
Numerous mergers with local entities, as well as clinics and hospitals in North Dakota and Minnesota, eventually led to Altru Health System, which officially took its current name in 1997.
Altru has tried to follow this model: Do what is best for the community, even if that meant merging with other entities and not duplicating services that are offered, Lambie said.
"Competition in medicine does not lower cost," he said. "Competition increases cost in medicine. That's a misnomer. Medicine is a different animal from most businesses."
When Lambie came to Grand Forks as a physician in 1962, there were 18 physicians and fewer than 100 employees in his facility. Now Altru has more than 200 doctors and almost 4,000 employees.
Lambie said Altru has been a big part of many people's lives, including his, Molmen's and Thompson's.
"Beyond what we do today, we have to make sure health care for the future is provided for," Molmen said. "That's been everything to us."