Altru, Essentia, Spirit Lake Nation and city of Devils Lake commit to health care collaboration

Oct. 19—DEVILS LAKE — Logistical discussions about a collaborative future for health care in Devils Lake can now begin after the city of Devils Lake, Altru Health System, Essentia Health and the Spirit Lake Tribe signed a letter of intent to work together and create a new medical campus in the community.

Leaders from the four parties met on Wednesday morning, Oct. 19, to sign a letter of intent saying they will work together, exclusively, to develop a new health care campus in Devils Lake. Community members, health care workers and local leaders filled a room at Lake Region State College to watch Devils Lake Mayor Jim Moe, Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Doug Yankton, Altru President Josh Deere and Essentia CEO David Herman sign their names.

Wednesday's event was the result of months of work by regional health care leaders, tribal leaders and Devils Lake city leaders, including former Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson, said Moe.

"We finally came to a point where we're looking at having some very wonderful collaborative health care opportunities in the future," he said.

The document signed Wednesday outlines the general terms and goals of the collaboration between the four entities. The parties are working toward a campus that will include a general acute care hospital within Devils Lake, which will be developed on land owned by Essentia. Essentia will develop a site plan for the health care campus, and the four parties will together create plans for the financing of infrastructure, construction and operation costs.

In the letter of intent, the target date for completion of the health care campus is Aug. 1, 2027.

The letter of intent opens the door for logistical discussions about how the public-private partnership will work. Details about the roles of each party, financing and services provided at the proposed hospital are yet to come. Even the health care provider name attached to the hospital is undetermined — in a rendering of what a new health care campus could look like, company names were intentionally left out, said Herman.

"Getting that letter of intent, where everybody puts their commitment out on paper, is just the start," said Herman.

With the letter of intent signed, the four parties now can discuss how the partnership will address challenges like the rural location of Devils Lake and behavioral health needs in the community, he said.

This type of partnership is new territory for Altru, said CEO Todd Forkel.

"In my 30 years in health care, this has not been done, and that, to me, is the most exciting aspect to this," said Forkel. "All four entities are very aligned about the objectives with this and I think that bodes well for the project that comes out of this collaboration."

And for the Spirit Lake Tribe, where members have higher rates of health problems, said Tribal Chairperson Doug Yankton, a collaboration to bring a new medical facility to Devils Lake — a facility that has more amenities — will shorten trips for community members with medical needs.

"I've been raised and taught that as we're all human beings we should all try to help one another in the best way we can," he said. "I think joining forces is one of the best ways for our community to address some of the health care needs in the future."

Medical transportation is a constant need of the Spirit Lake Tribe, said Kevin Dauphinais, Spirit Lake tribal health director. He said often, people are traveling to Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot for care.

"If we can get something locally, that would better quality of life for all members," he said.

Duaine Ash, a Devils Lake resident in attendance, said he loves the collaborative plan, and that a change in health care is badly needed because of the limited number of physicians and hospital services in Devils Lake.

"It's a very big milestone for the area if it all comes together," he said.

Health care in Devils Lake has been a topic of discussion among local leaders for the last year and a half.

In January of this year, Johnson, who has since retired,

wrote a letter to local media outlets expressing his frustration

with the state of health care in Devils Lake and calling for change. In his letter, he voiced concern with the lack of surgical procedures offered in Devils Lake, an apparent lack of cooperation between health care providers in the city and what he considers deteriorating conditions at CHI St. Alexius Hospital in Devils Lake.

Earlier, in 2021, Altru

emailed letters to 4,000 Devils Lake community members

affirming its commitment to Devils Lake. At a community meeting around the same time, the health system, which operates a clinic in Devils Lake, announced discussions about expanding services and purchasing CHI St. Alexius Hospital were being held.

At one time Essentia, headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, was working to acquire a number of CHI facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota, including the one in Devils Lake, but the plan fell through.

In March, U.S. Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven said they both had

been in contact with Johnson regarding health care

in Devils Lake. Cramer and a representative from Hoeven's office were at Wednesday's event.

Cramer said in his capacity as a senator, his ability to help with local health care issues is limited, but he does have the power to connect people who can have an impact.

"The role that I played was more of a facilitator, not as an adviser, not an agent of any type other than to introduce people that I believe can make a difference," he said. "To watch this today is really heartwarming."

Meanwhile, leaders and staff at CHI St. Alexius Hospital are skeptical of the partnership and whether it will improve health care in Devils Lake. At a City Commission meeting on Monday, Oct. 17, Mariann Doeling, the hospital's president, and other staff members

took to the podium to defend

the community's current hospital.

At the meeting, Doeling talked about some of the challenges the hospital faces, like ability to recruit staff and high numbers of trauma patients, behavioral health patients and addiction patients in the emergency room.

"I would be interested to see how that collaboration is also going to occur because that can create a huge strain on our health care system as well," she said.