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Devils Lake mayor: Animosity, lack of cooperation plague health care in community

The following is a Viewpoint piece, submitted by Dick Johnson.

Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson.jpg
Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson is shown in this Grand Forks Herald file photo.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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To the editor,

I want to be clear that the following letter is not the opinion of the Devils Lake City Commission. I write this as a concerned resident of the city of Devils Lake and the Lake Region, along with other concerned citizens who have shared with me the same concerns.

As mayor, I have often commented, “If our community were the patient, it could be said the community is on life support, or maybe code blue."

Devils Lake has had a rich history in health care. We had a strong physician-owned clinic formed in 1947 and a healthy hospital founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1902. Health care was first rate and was vital to the fabric of our community. Unfortunately, in the past few decades, it has deteriorated to its present state.

The purchase of the physician-owned clinic by Altru Health Systems happened in 2001. During this time, we have seen erosion of our base of physicians to a current low of four on staff and no surgeons. Concurrently, our hospital went through several ownership changes that culminated in Common Spirit now owning and operating our hospital. The separately owned clinic and separately owned hospital in the Devils Lake health care system have been detrimental to the community. The level of cooperation between them has been often non-existent, with the relationship described as “hostile.”


An overview of some of the specific problems:

First, our hospital holds the designation of a Critical Access Hospital (CAH), yet many question if the mission of a designation of CAH is being met. There are numerous anecdotal reports of people having long waits in the emergency room due to minimal staffing. As a community, we believe this situation can and will result in complications as well as unwelcome consequences. The golden hour cannot begin in the waiting room.

Furthermore, there has been an obvious absence of investment in the physical facilities of the hospital. The conditions in the operating rooms have been described as “unfit” by physicians. Procedures that should and can be performed locally have been moved to facilities out of town. Only minimal upgrades have been made in years. The rehabilitation facilities are virtually nonexistent. For example, patients with basic bone breaks are triaged to other hospitals, such as Minot or Grand Forks, to do their treatments. The most egregious example of the lack of facility investment is the emergency room. The local hospital board has been raising funds to improve the ER for several years. There is no privacy in the majority of the emergency room resulting in difficult times for patients and families to endure. With only a curtain to separate patients one can only ask how this can meet today's standard of care. The hospital has generated significant profits for Common Spirit while there have been no upgrades, even with locally raised foundation funds.

In addition, there is a continued level of animosity and lack of cooperation between Altru and Common Spirit. This serves no one. Neither has been able to recruit acceptable levels of staff, and in addition this results in few referrals between entities. There has been a tremendous growth of ground and air ambulance services. Local services, which can regionally be supported, are on the brink of collapse.

Devils Lake deserves to have a unified health care system comprised of a major clinical and hospital presence. The current providers have long demonstrated they are unable to create this environment.

Current interest in addressing the needed health care change in the Devils Lake region has been announced as follows:

● Essentia is interested in building a new hospital and has an option to purchase land on the Highway 2 corridor. Essentia is operating hospitals that are faith based.

● Altru has a letter of intent to purchase land on the Highway 2 corridor. They also have a clinical presence.


● Sanford Health is opening a Devils Lake Clinic in one month and evaluating options for future service expansion.

All options will be best served by allowing an entity that wants to be a long-term and valued member of the community to gracefully take over the operations of the hospital while planning the construction of a new facility. A new facility will need the CAH designation to ensure the best services possible can be provided.

CHI/Common Spirit has indicated they want to exit the community, not only through the building of their cash reserves as well as by the marketing of the sale of the Devils Lake Hospital. We should not be held hostage by this strategy.

On a positive note, we have a debt of gratitude to the many present and past employees in the Devils Lake health care system. They have done a more than admirable job of providing services with the tools they have been given. They will be the foundation of change.

Devils Lake will support positive changes that will improve our community’s health care.

Common Spirit needs to divest of the cash flow from Devils Lake operations due to the fact they have not fulfilled the mission of providing reasonable investment in facilities to ensure the mission of serving the community.

Dick Johnson,
Mayor of Devils Lake

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