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So far, not so good: Ontonagon looks to maintain ER services after Aspirus health clinic announcement

Courtesy of Aspirus Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital’s emergency entrance

ONTONAGON — Ontonagon county officials and area political representatives are searching for a solution after Aspirus’s announcement last week it would be ending hospital and emergency room operations at Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital and transitioning a rural health clinic.

911 coverage in the county remains unchanged, said Ontonagon County Emergency Services Director Michael Kocher. However, they are still working out what emergency response will look like in the county.

With no emergency room in Ontonagon, the nearest one would be 47 miles away at Baraga County Memorial Hospital. UP Health – Portage in Hancock is 50 miles away, and Aspirus Ironwood Hospital more than 60, he said.

hospital map marked

“The odds of survivability, if you were to have a stroke or heart attack in downtown Ontonagon, went from a high percentage to a much lower percentage, because you’ll be taking at minimum an hour-long ride,” he said.

Kocher is also concerned about what will happen for medical events occurring outside the rural health clinic’s operating hours, which will be during regular business hours Monday through Friday.

Kocher said he and Sheriff Dale Rantala are looking at obtaining training for sheriff’s deputies to get them certified as medical first responders. He will also go to the local fire departments to gauge their interest in doing something similar.

SONCO Ambulance will be meeting with Aspirus Medivac on Friday to discuss what emergency response will look like in the county, Kocher said.

State Rep. Greg Markkanen said he, State Sen. Ed McBroom and U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman are exploring all options to maintain emergency care in the county. It’s too soon to say what that will look like, he said.

“We’re looking into everything right now,” said Markkanen, R-Hancock. “Everything’s on the table. But the main priority is to keep that emergency room open or staffed in some way, shape or form to service Ontonagon County.”

Kocher said one option being considered is finding an organization willing to purchase the hospital. Aspirus has owned it since 2007, when it purchased it from the Village of Ontonagon. Among the improvements since then were an 8,210-square-foot emergency department expansion and inpatient unit renovation.

When Kocher and Rantala met with an Aspirus administrators after the announcement, he told them there were no offers on the table, Kocher said.

“Our concern as public officials in Ontonagon is providing reasonable health care for everybody who lives in and drives through the county … I don’t know what the ultimate answer is, but all of those avenues will be explored,” he said.

The changes take effect April 20, Aspirus said in a release. After that point, the Ontonagon facility will become a rural health clinic.

It will provide primary care, same-day access, core laboratory services, imaging services; physical, occupational and speech therapy; retail pharmacy services; and specialty outreach for cardiology, women’s health, podiatry and diabetes care.

In response to an interview request, an Aspirus representative said the organization would have no comment beyond the initial press release.

Aspirus paired the news with the announcement of a $30 million renovation and expansion of Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital in Laurium. That will be used to make existing infrastructure more efficient and effective, redesigning and remodeling inpatient rooms to enable advanced care delivery and a better patient experience, and improving patient flow and primary care access, according to a release.

“Aspirus Health is committed to the Upper Peninsula and to continuously transforming to meet the changing needs of its communities,” said Christine Harr, Aspirus U.P. Region president. “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.”

Aspirus said the new lineup of services in Ontonagon was a better match for the current needs of the community. In its release, Aspirus said the hospital serves an average of one inpatient per day — and on some days, none.

Figures for the total number of visitors, including outpatients, were unavailable. But ambulances make between two to four trips to the hospital per day on average, Kocher said.

There are currently two ambulances stationed at the north end of the county at the sheriff’s department, and one on the south end at the Ewen Fire Hall.

Aspirus also stated it is working with Ontonagon employees whose roles are changing to find other positions within the Aspirus system.

There are around 70 employees at the hospital, Kocher said. In conversation with the Aspirus administrator, he was told about half of those would remain at the new facility, Kocher said.

About 20 to 30 skilled positions may be offered positions at Aspirus’ facility in Laurium, Kocher said. One employee had already been told their job will be moved to Laurium, to where they will drive four days a week, Kocher said.

Residents had begun circulating information regarding the closure, asking residents to call their representation. The Michigan Nurses Association also created a petition online, calling for Aspirus to maintain emergency care. It said rural emergency rooms are vital centers for providing care to stabilize people before transfer to a larger facility, which in some cases can save lives, the petition states.

“Aspirus claims to care about lives in the U.P., but its actions say otherwise,” the petition said.

County officials had received no advance notice, with Kocher finding out from a local radio station, he said. It had been a “total shock,” he said.

“Ontonagon is the third-largest county in the State of Michigan,” he said. “And to say we don’t have an ER? I can’t fathom what that will mean down the road for potential employment, job opportunities coming into the county.”

While there had been no official word, rumors had already been circulating in the community. Markkanen said he had contacted Aspirus leadership several days before last week’s announcement and had been assured the hospital was not closing.

“That’s very upsetting,” he said. “If I started lying to people, I wouldn’t be in this office very long. That’s really not how we operate in the Upper Peninsula, and I would expect more from a Wisconsin company than that. I realize it’s a very tough decision, and I understand that, but they didn’t even give us a chance to help them or assist in any way possible.”

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