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Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson calls for unified health care system in community

Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson is calling for changes to health care in his community, citing a lack of investment into the city’s hospital and a contentious relationship between providers.

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A sign welcomes guests to Devils Lake, N.D. (Grand Forks Herald)
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DEVILS LAKE — Mayor Dick Johnson is calling for changes to health care in Devils Lake , citing a lack of investment in the city’s hospital and a contentious relationship between providers in the community.

“This has been going on for years and there haven’t been significant improvements to the situation at the hospital,” Johnson told the Grand Forks Herald Tuesday morning. “In a community our size with 7,300 people, and the Spirit Lake Nation that probably has another 7,000 people, we need good health care.”

On Monday, Johnson wrote a letter to various media outlets expressing his frustrations with the limited number of procedures available in Devils Lake. He also is concerned by what he considers deteriorating hospital conditions and a lack of cooperation between CommonSpirit Health, which owns CHI St. Alexius Devils Lake Hospital, and Grand Forks-based Altru Health System, which operates a clinic in Devils Lake.

In his letter, he calls for unified health care — one company to run both the hospital and the clinic. He says Altru Health, Essentia Health and Sanford Health all have come forward with interest in this unified model for Devils Lake.

In January 2021, Duluth-based Essentia Health and CommonSpirit announced that the health systems had signed a letter of intent for Essentia to acquire CommonSpirit facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota , including CHI St. Alexius in Devils Lake. In May 2021, the Bismarck Tribune reported that the two companies were unable to come to an agreement and negotiations had ended.


In July 2021 Altru sent letters to Devils Lake residents expressing its intent to “remain in the area for the long term.” Soon after these emails were sent, Altru hosted a public listening session about the importance of local health care in Devils Lake , 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, Altru partnered with Devils Lake Public Schools to provide school nurse and athletic training services.

Sanford Health announced in July that it will 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.

Tuesday, Johnson told the Herald that he sees the relationship between Altru and CommonSpirit as “contentious at best.”

Mariann Doeling, interim president at CHI St. Alexius Devils Lake Hospital, says CommonSpirit has maintained regular communication with Altru, and has planned discussions about what a partnership in the future might look like.

“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,” Doeling said.

Said Annie Bonzer, a spokeswoman for Altru: "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."

Bonzer said Altru has been and will remain open to partnerships with other organizations that can "support that model and who have the intent to better the health care for the residents of the Lake Region."


Johnson says a unified health care system, no matter the company, is what will provide Devils Lake with the best health care services.

“We’re hoping that CHI will sell the hospital, get a reasonable price, and sell the hospital to one of those other interested parties, any one of the three — that would be Essentia, and that would be Altru and Sanford, if they’re interested,” said Johnson.

Johnson said his criticism lies not with the health care professionals at either company, but rather with leadership and what he contends is a lack of cooperation between the two entities.

“It’s very important to make note that we’re not critical of the staff at either Altru or CHI. Those people have been doing a heck of a job for what they had to work with,” said Johnson.

Bonzer, in her response from Altru, concluded her statement by saying Altru remains "focused on physician recruitment and expanded services in addition to the development of a future hospital facility. We have been meeting monthly with a group of community members to ensure that our plans align directly with the specific needs of the Lake Region."

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 Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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