Altru Health System on Thursday sent 4,000 emailed letters to residents of Devils Lake, outlining the system’s commitment to that community, and later in the day confirmed discussions have begun that could potentially lead to managing or purchasing St. Alexius Hospital.
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The letter notes what Altru considers a tenuous future of health care in the Ramsey County community of 7,100, about 90 miles west of Grand Forks, and stresses that Altru is “deeply committed” to health care in the Devils Lake region.
“There is no question that the future of local health care in Devils Lake is at risk,” the letter begins. “... We, and especially the team of physicians and staff at Altru Clinic, are committed to this community and intend to remain in the region for the long term.”
The letter was signed by Dave Molmen, Altru’s interim CEO; Steven Weiser, Altru’s president; Amber Stokke; manager of the Altru Clinic in Devils Lake; and Stephanie Foughty, chairwoman of the Altru Clinic in Devils Lake.
The letter refers to failed negotiations between CommonSpirit Health, which owns the hospital in Devils Lake, and another regional provider, Essentia Health. As reported earlier this year by the Bismarck Tribune, those companies had been in discussions to potentially transfer CommonSpirit facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota to Essentia, a Duluth-based company that includes Essentia Health-Fargo.
The Altru letter sent Thursday references potential growth by Altru, which already operates a clinic in Devils Lake. Altru spokeswoman Annie Bonzer said that growth could take various forms, from a purchase of the Devils Lake hospital to managing some sort of community-owned facility.
“There is a substantial opportunity and immediate need to enhance health care services in Devils Lake,” the letter read. “A community-owned, Altru-managed hospital is the ideal choice for the Devils Lake community. In this model 100 percent of the current hospital and clinic staff would retain their jobs, the community would own their health care decisions and the funds raised by the hospital would remain local, while care between the hospital, clinic and specialized care needs remains part of a unified system managed by Altru.”
In an interview with the Herald Thursday afternoon, Meghan Compton, Altru’s chief clinical operations officer, said the intent of the letter is to “make sure that we're listening to the community and better understanding their needs, so that we can offer the right services for the community.”
“The recent effort to sell to Minnesota-based Essentia has been called off,” Compton said. “What remains for us is an opportunity to bring the ownership of all of the health care in the community of Devils Lake back to North Dakota, and create a unified delivery model that brings the clinic and the hospital together.”
When specifically asked if Altru has an interest in purchasing the Devils Lake hospital, Compton said “we are considering that as an option.”
“We just continue to have ongoing conversations with them,” Compton said. “They've been receptive to our position and understand our intent.”
She also said Altru has reached out to community leadership about the possibility.
In the letter, Altru said it is “seeking the community’s support to pursue this health care future in Devils Lake.”
According to Altru, the key attributes of a unified care model include:
• Physicians and care teams working seamlessly across the clinic and hospital.
• Strong physician recruitment and coordination of capital re-investment to ensure expertise in care delivery and meeting evolving technology and community health care needs.
• Utilization of a single medical record.
Said Compton: “We also believe that a locally owned North Dakota health care system is critical in a community like Devils Lake. We believe Altru is the best organization for that.”
Altru is in the midst of constructing a new hospital near its current Grand Forks location. The $250 million project was halted during the uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and also as the hospital laid off more than 150 employees in 2020.
But in February, Altru announced it will soon resume construction, with a completion date of 2024. The hospital has since re-filled a number of the laid-off positions.
Bonzer said Altru would not be attempting expansion if it did not feel confident with its current financial situation.
“These are conversations we wouldn’t be having if we didn’t feel we could (move forward),” she said. “We have had great growth in the last nine months and our financial situation is strong. We feel (Altru's interest in Devils Lake) is an important thing for an important community. We want to make sure we are in the game and committed, and that we are there.”
Calls seeking comment from St. Alexius Health-Devils Lake CEO Andy Lankowicz were not returned prior to publication of this report.