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After he outlined concerns with health care in Devils Lake, mayor 'dismayed' at response from local hospital

“I have personally discussed this issue with CHI on multiple occasions," Johnson said. The hospital has declined to comment further.

Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson.jpg
Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson is shown in this Grand Forks Herald file photo.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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DEVILS LAKE – Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson said he is “dismayed” by a comment made by a representative from CommonSpirit, the company that owns the community’s hospital.

Johnson last week wrote a letter to the Grand Forks Herald and other media in the region , expressing his frustration with what he called “an obvious absence of investment” at the hospital and “animosity and a lack of cooperation” between providers at the hospital and a local clinic.

“Devils Lake deserves to have a unified health care system comprised of a major clinical and hospital presence,” Johnson wrote on Jan. 24. “The current providers have long demonstrated they are unable to create this environment.”

In response, Mariann Doeling, interim president at the hospital, last week told the Herald that “it’s very unfortunate that Mayor Johnson has never connected with myself to ask about that contentious relationship because to my knowledge, there is not a contentious relationship.”

In a second letter to the Herald, sent Jan. 28, Johnson said he feels it is “necessary to correct the record.”

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“I was dismayed at the response from CHI representative, Mercy Hospital’s Interim President Mariann Doeling, concerning the grave situation the community of Devils Lake faces with respect to the health care it is being provided,” he wrote. “I have personally discussed this issue with CHI on multiple occasions.”

CommonSpirit Health, which operates CHI St. Alexius Devils Lake Hospital, this week declined to comment on the mayor’s most recent letter.

After sending his original letter, Johnson said – during a subsequent interview with the Herald – that the relationship between CommonSpirit Health and Altru Health, which runs a clinic in Devils Lake, is “contentious at best.”

In the past, Johnson said, he has met with Jeanette Wojtalewcz, senior vice president and chief financial officer for CommonSpirit’s Midwest Division.

“The subject of the lack of collaboration between the hospital and clinic was one of the top points of discussion in every conversation I have had with CHI,” he wrote on Jan. 28, in response to Doeling’s comments.

In his Jan. 28 letter, he also said Wajtalewcz has toured the hospital and seen the outdated facilities.

“The building is still heated with the original boiler from when it was erected. While this is a dramatic example of the inadequacy of the facility it is not the most important,” Johnson wrote. “The emergency room, surgical facilities and rehab facilities are all so far out of compliance with what would be considered the state of the art, that almost all routine procedures and treatments have to be shipped out of our community.”

According to Johnson, any denial of a contentious relationship between CommonSpirit and Altru reveals one of two things.

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“Either there is a complete lack of recognition of a problem that has been clearly communicated on multiple occasions, or the lack of communication from within the organization is truly staggering,” he said.

Johnson’s initial call for a unified health system comes after a year of health care activity in the community. In January 2021, CommonSpirit announced that Duluth-based Essentia Health would acquire CommonSpirit facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota , including the hospital in Devils Lake. This agreement fell through in May 2021.

Then, in July 2021, Altru sent letters to Devils Lake residents expressing a commitment to remaining in the area long term , suggesting that an Altru-managed hospital was the “ideal choice for the Devils Lake community.” Shortly after the letters were sent, Altru hosted a series of public listening sessions for Devils Lake residents, where Altru Chief Clinical Operations Officer Meghan Compton told attendees that Altru had expressed its intent and was in a financial position to purchase CHI St. Alexius should the opportunity arise. In September 2021, Altru partnered with Devils Lake Public Schools to provide school nurse and athletic training services. Before, Devils Lake Public Schools had an athletic training service agreement with CHI St. Alexius.

Sanford Health announced in July that it would open a clinic in Devils Lake early in 2022. The clinic will be located on the Eventide Senior Living Communities campus.

On Dec. 1, Altru announced it had signed a letter of intent to purchase 50 acres of land for a future hospital facility in Devils Lake.

In response to Johnson’s original letter, Altru spokeswoman Annie Bonzer said, "In July, we shared our deep and long-standing commitment to the health care in Devils Lake. We acknowledged then that there was a substantial opportunity to enhance services in the community, and that a unified health care model was the best way to do that. We are committed to seeing that model through, which is why we announced our intent to purchase land for a future hospital facility this November."

Related Topics: DEVILS LAKEALTRUMEMBERS-ONLY
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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