Healthcare Coalition negotiating leases with UHD, Mason City Clinic

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, February 18, 2024

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Trustees of the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition on Sunday announced they are negotiating leases with United Hospital District to come to town for primary care and Mason City Clinic for specialty care in the coalition’s space at Northbridge Mall.

Coalition President Brad Arends said the entity is in the early stages of negotiations with UHD out of Blue Earth with the target date to open Sept. 1. Mason City Clinic, which is further along with negotiations, is slated for April 1. Arends said Mason City Clinic wanted to stay in Albert Lea and grow here.

Arends said UHD was interested in coming to Albert Lea previously before the MercyOne clinic opened and came to the coalition’s leaders again after MercyOne announced it would close last year. He said it was important to the trustees to bring in an entity that had a hospital close by, and said if they had gone with a health care organization in Minneapolis or Sioux Falls, it would not be convenient for the family members of patients who had to be taken there.

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“There has been a lot of questions going around, there’s been a lot of speculation going around town about the end of this dream, and we wanted to make sure that you realized we’ve been working at it and we’re really excited about this next stage,” Arends said to a standing-room only crowd in the meeting room of the Albert Lea fire station.

He said he was pleased to see the good turnout for the meeting and said it was a testament to an issue that has had broad support in the community for years now. The goal remains to bring high-quality affordable health care for the citizens of Albert Lea and the surrounding communities and now they have added the priority for care that is conveniently accessible.

Arends said they were surprised in August when MercyOne notified them that the organization would close its 14,000-square-foot Albert Lea clinic even after it exceeded patient expectations.

He said in the months since, the coalition has worked to find replacements and negotiate with MercyOne about the equipment that was in the clinic that had been purchased by MercyOne but had a lien on it through the city of Albert Lea.

The coalition hired a law firm from the Twin Cities for $35,000 and negotiated an agreement. Part of the agreement would let MercyOne out of its lease seven months early and in return they agreed to sell a $200,000 X-ray machine to the coalition for $125,000. They also negotiated furniture for six offices, though MercyOne took a lot of the equipment and other items. A group of local citizens who wanted to remain anonymous helped buy the X-ray machine and paid the lawyer fees.

Arends said the coalition found the X-ray machine was important for potential partners in the future and described it as “critical” to their success.

Though the coalition had wanted to bring in a new partner to start Jan. 1 so there would not be a gap in services, he said it was not possible. UHD has been busy expanding its clinic in Fairmont.

Arends said the doctors who helped build the clinic initially will be coming back to Albert Lea through UHD, including family practice Dr. David Heine, who is starting at the organization’s Wells location and then will transfer to Albert Lea.

Trustee Jean Eaton said the coalition has met with some of the other former MercyOne staff, who also want to come to the new clinic when it is opened.

Arends said they plan to continue with the same phases they had initially set up with MercyOne that are contingent on patient load. The first phase is patient care, and once a certain patient load is reached, additional rooms will be added. After that is urgent care and then full panel imagery. The fifth phase will be outpatient surgery.

Some in the audience asked about an emergency room or helicopter service, and Arends said that would be after the fifth phase.

He said they had over 5,100 unique patients before MercyOne closed, and he encouraged people to come back once the new clinic opens. He said they also want to reestablish a worksite clinic through UHD and hoped that could start in January 2025.

“You want these things in Albert Lea, you’ve got to go there, and you’ve got to get your family to go there and you’ve got to get your neighbors to go there because we won’t get that full panel imagery without patients that are going to use them all the time instead of going to Mayo,” he said. “It’s the same for outpatient surgery.”

Trustee Steve Tufte said the coalition has an annual budget of $300,000 annually, including costs from utilities, repair and maintenance, interest on loans and property taxes. Bringing in new tenants to their space would help pay for some of those costs.

Trustee Charlie Newell said the coalition also plans to go after various grants and to reach out to other philanthropic partners to raise funds. A gala will be planned for September or October. The last gala brought in $100,000.