Lawmakers question Aspirus CEO over hospital service changes

U.S. and Michigan lawmakers are seeking answers to concerns regarding the recently announced transition of services at Aspirus Ontonagon (Mich.) Hospital.

In a letter to Aspirus Health CEO Matthew Heywood, U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom and Michigan state Rep. Greg Markkanen point to plans announced in 2021 to replace Aspirus Ontonagon and close its skilled nursing facility. Construction on the new hospital was expected to cost $15.8 million and begin in spring 2022.

"As recently as March of 2022, Aspirus put out a press release saying that plans for the new hospital were being finalized — although it appears that this release is no longer available to view on Aspirus Health's website," the lawmakers' letter reads. 

"It seems the plan to invest in a new facility was quietly abandoned in favor of closing hospital services altogether."

In February, Aspirus Health announced it is investing $30 million in Laurium, Mich.-based Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital as part of a renovation and expansion project. The system said it will also transition Aspirus Ontonagon into a rural health clinic, effective April 20, replacing its hospital and emergency services with outpatient-only services.

The lawmakers said in their letter that their primary concern with these plans is the closure of emergency room operations. 

"Even without full inpatient care, rural emergency rooms are essential for quickly treating and stabilizing patients before they are transferred to a larger facility," they wrote. "Ontonagon Hospital hosts the only ER in Ontonagon County — the third largest county in the state. Closure of the Ontonagon ER will have very real consequences and could directly endanger the lives of Michiganders."

The lawmakers also expressed concerns about how the plans will affect access to emergency medical services in the area, and posed five questions to Mr. Heywood related to how decisions were made and what steps were taken.

A spokesperson for Aspirus Health told Becker's the organization does not have additional information to provide outside of the information it provided earlier this month related to the plans.

In a Feb. 20 news release, Aspirus Upper Peninsula Region President Christine Harff, BSN, said: "Aspirus Health is committed to the Upper Peninsula, and to continuously transforming to meet the changing needs of its communities. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and recent economic challenges, we have stayed strong through foresight, integration and rigorous continuous improvement. We are happy to be able to invest these resources in support of the people who depend on us for excellent, compassionate care." 

The release also stated that the transition of Aspirus Ontonagon to a rural health clinic "will provide services that better match local needs in a community that has changed dramatically in recent years."

The lawmakers' letter came one day before Wausau, Wis.-based Aspirus Health and Duluth, Minn.-based St. Luke's announced they officially combined, forming a 19-hospital system with almost 14,000 employees.

Read the full letter here

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