NO EMERGENCY: Life without an E.R.

ONTONAGON, Mich. (WJMN) – At Midnight on April 19th, 2024 the residents of Ontonagon County say they began living a nightmare after the only emergency department within an hour’s drive shut its doors, for good.

Without any further comment from Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital’s leadership, the Aspirus nonprofit hospital system announced the closure in a press release just days after assuring a United States Congressman the rumors of an impending closure were false.

The Feb. 20 release headlined a $30 million investment into Aspirus’ Keweenaw Hospital in Laurium, but also couched the notice of transitioning Aspirus’ Ontonagon Hospital to a rural health clinic.

Aspirus explained that meant the medical center would still provide many services like primary care, specialty services, and medical imaging, but would drop its hospital and emergency services care. Aspirus called the replacement “a robust suite of outpatient-only services the community depends on,” and said the hospital served on average just one inpatient a day on average.

The announcement gave local residents just 60 days’ notice, and the press release was the single piece of information given to the community, Aspirus has said nothing publicly since then.

The residents of Ontonagon feel lied to, betrayed, and abandoned by a company that only 2 years ago announced plans to build a new $15.8 million hospital.

The residents Local 3 spoke to said they terrified. Reporter John Truitt met with several members of the Ontonagon community who previously relied on the emergency services, including Cheryl Sundberg. She’s now retired, but still directs the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival.

“I never ever saw this coming,” said Sundberg. “We all feel blindsided we were just in shock when they made the announcement that in 60 days they would be closing, and no further comment and I don’t think any of us saw it happening we’re just devastated feeling very betrayed and just devastated.”

John Statler, a lifelong resident of the area, echoed the sentiment. “It made me feel pretty bad. Because we got a lot of health problems, everybody got a lot of health problems. We need people around need a hospital, need emergency room, we need everything, it’s like hurting everybody.”

“I’m just appalled I’m really appalled I just can’t understand it somebody’s not thinking,“ said Faith Peterson, who also lives in the area.

With a population of nearly 6,000 Ontonagon County is the 3rd largest by area in the state of Michigan, so driving long distances is a part of life. But, having to travel 47 miles to the nearest emergency room is just too far, according to Sundberg.

“Under the best circumstances, say it’s 48 miles away if the ambulance was right with you when you had your event, you’d still have 48 minutes, but there won’t be, and there’ll be bad weather and they’ll be times when the ambulances aren’t available,” said Sundberg.

Prior to the announcement of Aspirus closing its doors, rumors started circulating about the possible closure of Ontonagon’s hospital.

With pressure from US Congressman Jack Bergman, Michigan State Senator Ed McBroom, and State Rep. Greg Markkanen, Aspirus agreed to meet with local officials. Emergency Manager/911 Director Mick Kocher attended that meeting.

“We were told that that was a bad rumor, and we ought not to spread that. five-six days later after we had one of our elected officials call Wausau Aspirus and ask about that rumor, he was also told that it was false and that Ontonagon would not close… six days later we all officially got the notice that Ontonagon would be closing within 60 days,” said Kocher.

Ontonagon County has a population average age well over 60, and with a struggling economy and loss of jobs, Ontonagon may be losing even more.

If people feel unsafe in their own homes, with medical conditions, or young children, many will have no choice but to leave for a more secure environment.

Village Manager, William DuPont understands that fear. “There’s a lot of older people here, there’s a lot of retired people, there’s a lot of people on Social Security, a lot of folks that have owned their house for a long time and a lot of people are probably thinking I don’t want to stay here anymore because there isn’t an E.R. available and I think that’s just a shame. It’s a shame.”

This is the first of a multi-part series on the topic. You can find part 2 here.

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