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Business and community leaders in Albert Lea, Minnesota, were set to build out some abandoned mall space this year for a new local healthcare center after Mayo Clinic Health System closed a large share of the town’s hospital in 2019.

“It’s exciting, quite frankly,” Brad Arends, president of the Albert Lea Health Care Coalition, said. The coalition he leads consists of area business and civic leaders who formed three years ago to fight the loss of their hospital in this southern Minnesota town of 17,600 a few miles north of the Minnesota-Iowa border at the intersection of Interstates 35 and 90.

This story is part of a nationwide collaboration of Institute for Nonprofit News members examining the effect COVID-19 is having on rural health care. IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. Credit: Logo created by Wisconsin Watch

“It’s something where you sit back and say, ‘can we really do this?’” Arends said. “We can do it.”

Albert Lea’s situation is a case study of how important community involvement is when fighting for locally accessible health care.  

The Albert Lea Health Care Coalition started three years ago as a citizens’ action group after Mayo announced its pending moves from their town.

Hospital closures are a constant threat for many small, rural communities even though Albert Lea’s hospital was a 142-bed short-term acute care facility instead of a smaller critical access hospital. The hospital, which financial records show lost $3.8 million and had a 9.2% negative operating margin at the end of 2018, shows up on a Cecil G. Center for Health Services Research map of rural hospitals closing and being converted in 2019.

The Albert Lea Health Care Coalition has raised $3 million to date and recruited the MercyOne North health care system, of Mason City, Iowa, to take over 64,000 square feet of available space at Northbridge Mall that a Herberger’s department store abandoned in 2018. Plans call for expanding in the space in phases.

A former Herberger’s store at Northbridge Mall in Albert Lea, Minnesota, is to house a new, community-driven MercyOne North Iowa clinic in 2021. Photo taken Aug. 30, 2020. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)

“The citizens of Albert Lea never gave up,” Arends said.

But, the novel coronavirus pandemic forced delays earlier this year.

“We have blueprints, and we had a firm start date of April 1, which got pushed back because of COVID. … That would have been breaking ground,” said Arends, a financial services adviser and bladder cancer survivor. The start of construction was moved to this fall.

A five-step plan calls for providing primary care and five or six staff specialists in the first step. Other steps will build toward the last one: an outpatient surgery center with 85 to 100 full-time workers.

That outpatient surgery center will be important to bringing back a service sought dearly in an area that serves 55,000 people, Arends said: a birthing unit. Mothers giving birth must travel to 22 miles to Austin, Minnesota, in the Mayo system because of last year’s moves.

“We were delivering 300 to 350 babies a year, and today we deliver zero,” Arends said.  

A new clinic started operating Aug. 1, 2020, at Northbridge Mall in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Photo taken Aug. 30, 2020. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)

Revised plans call for opening by the end of March in 2021, although Dr. David Heine, with the Mason City group, began seeing patients in August at the mall. However, the delayed schedule meant local employers lost a chance to add MercyOne and, had they wanted, subtract Mayo from their 2021 health insurance plans that take effect Jan. 1.

People may test for COVID-19 at the remaining Albert Lea Mayo facility but some local residents had to be hospitalized with the virus in Austin this year, Arends said.

A possible silver lining in Albert Lea is that the new health care facility hasn’t sustained the massive financial losses hospitals have taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That is an advantage for us,” Arends said.

“But, it also set us back.”

This story was part of a multi-newsroom collaboration of IowaWatch, Wisconsin Watch, the Institute for Nonprofit News, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Side Effects Public Media.

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IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. Credit: Logo created by Wisconsin Watch

READ MORE FROM “SLAMMED: RURAL HEALTH CARE AND COVID-19”

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STIMULUS MONEY WAS ONLY A SHORT-TERM FIX AS RURAL HOSPITALS BRACE FOR THE NEXT COVID-19 SURGES
NATURAL DISASTERS DURING COVID-19 ADD TO THE MISERY
From Reveal:
PANDEMIC SPIKES IN RURAL STATES, WHERE SMALL HOSPITALS ARE ALREADY IN FINANCIAL DISTRESS
From Wisconsin Watch:
WISCONSIN’S RURAL HOSPITALS WEATHER PANDEMIC BETTER THAN MOST, BUT WARNING SIGNS REMAIN
From Side Effects Public Media:
WILL COVID-19 TRIGGER MORE RURAL HOSPITAL CLOSURES?

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