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Outcomes vary in Essentia's efforts with small-town hospitals

Here's a summary of Essentia Health's recent activity in several communities: Aurora The independent White Community Hospital became part of the Essentia Health system on July 1, 2010, and the hospital now is known as Essentia Health-Northern Pines.

Here's a summary of Essentia Health's recent activity in several communities:

Aurora

The independent White Community Hospital became part of the Essentia Health system on July 1, 2010, and the hospital now is known as Essentia Health-Northern Pines.

Laura Ackman, the hospital's administrator since 2008, saw her role expand. Already responsible for the hospital and attached nursing home, Ackman took on the Essentia clinic across town as well. But a new Essentia clinic, attached to the hospital, opened on Friday. It's the result of a $4.5 million construction and remodeling project.

The clinic and hospital will share a new registration area as well as a new and expanded laboratory and radiology suite, according to an Essentia Health statement. The new clinic has 12 exam rooms and space for minor medical procedures. There is a new waiting area for surgical patients and their families.

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Electronic health records, already used at the clinic, are now also available at the hospital.

Since Essentia took over, the hospital has added almost eight full-time-equivalent positions, Ackman said.

The transition had its difficult moments, she said.

"There were growth pains, no doubt about it," Ackman said. "Being part of a small building where the board and I called the shots, it was easy and quick to make a decision. However, we never had the depth of expertise that we do with Essentia."

Ely

Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital and Essentia Health suspended affiliation talks in March.

"There were a couple of issues having to do with the structure of the transaction that we were not making a lot of progress on," said Dan McGinty, chief administrative officer for Essentia's East Region.

John Fossum, the hospital's administrator, said the two sides were "not on the same page" regarding the hospital's foundation and about retiring its debts.

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Both said the two entities remain on good terms and that talks probably will resume eventually.

"It was amicable, and I'm sure we'll be back at the table," McGinty said.

But not soon, Fossum added.

"We're a year or more from even sitting down to talk again," he said.

Moose Lake

Talks between Essentia Health and Moose Lake's Mercy Hospital were suspended in February.

Jason Douglas, the hospital's CEO, said the hospital district's board and Essentia officials ended on good terms, but the board decided the time wasn't right for affiliation.

Some area residents vociferously opposed aligning with Essentia, including Clare Stevens, a nurse at Moose Lake's Gateway Family Health Clinic who conducted a petition drive against affiliation. She's suing the Moose Lake Community Hospital District and its board, claiming discussions were held in violation of Minnesota's Open Meetings Law.

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Stevens told the News Tribune she worked independently on the campaign and not at the behest of the clinic. Gateway Clinic administrators didn't return a call to the News Tribune for a comment.

When the suspension of talks was announced during a public meeting, people in the audience applauded, according to the Moose Lake Star-Gazette.

Both Mercy Hospital's Douglas and Essentia's McGinty said talks may resume, but there's no timeline for that to happen.

Mercy Hospital can afford to wait to take action because it's in good financial shape, Douglas said. The hospital has about 100 days' cash on hand. That's twice the minimum needed for a hospital to be considered financially stable, said Terry Hill, executive director of the National Rural Health Resource Center.

Sandstone

Last fall, the North Pines Area Hospital District board voted to cancel its lease with Essentia Health, which operates Essentia Health-Sandstone, a 25-bed hospital.

According to reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Essentia responded by firing the hospital's two top administrators and notifying the board it would exercise a clause in the lease allowing it to buy out the hospital for $170,000 at the end of August.

At a meeting in May, McGinty and Dr. Daniel Nikcevich, interim president and chief medical officer for Essentia's East Region, proposed that Essentia would not exercise its buyout option if the district board agreed to continue the lease for three years, when it's scheduled to expire.

The board is scheduled to respond to the proposal on June 12.

Virginia

Last fall, 86 percent of Virginia voters approved a referendum to change the management structure of the community's 76-year-old municipal hospital, Virginia Regional Medical Center.

The Virginia Hospital Commission is expected to vote on the affiliation on June 11. If the commission votes yes, the City Council will vote the following day. Each vote requires a two-thirds majority.

Joe Leoni, chairman of the Hospital Commission, said he thinks the commission will approve the affiliation. Charlie Baribeau, a Virginia city councilor who supports the affiliation, said previous procedural votes have favored moving forward 6-1, with Mayor Steve Peterson casting the negative vote. City Councilor Nevada Littlewolf hasn't said how she'll vote, but has said she has "concerns" that need to be addressed.

A public forum on the deal is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in the Iron Range Rehabilitation Center auditorium, which is on the west end of the medical center's campus.

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