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Joint ACMC, Rice venture says plan in place for new diabetes site

WILLMAR -- A new Willmar Diabetes Center is being created to take the place of the soon-to-close Diabetes and Nutrition Center at Rice Memorial Hospital.

The announcement was made Monday by Willmar Medical Services, a joint venture between Affiliated Community Medical Centers and Rice Hospital.

"We're excited that we can do this jointly with the hospital," said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Willmar Medical Services. "We knew just intuitively that it's a service that had to be offered in the community."

The new service will start seeing patients on Oct. 1.

Nearly 400 people were left without access to comprehensive diabetes care and education when the city-owned hospital said last month it was closing its Diabetes Center as a cost-cutting measure. The hospital also is shutting down its outpatient congestive heart failure clinic. Both programs are scheduled to end Thursday.

For the past three weeks, officials have been working feverishly behind the scenes to come up with another solution.

Holmgren said he'd been hearing from physicians as well as patients that the service is needed.

"There's a lot of anxious people out there," he said.

A precedent has already been set for joint ventures between the regional multispecialty medical clinic and the hospital. The two are equal owners of Willmar Medical Services, through which the outpatient Willmar Surgery Center is owned and operated. This past December, the joint venture was expanded to include medical imaging services and an integrated cancer center.

It "made sense" that Willmar Medical Services should be the vehicle under which the new Willmar Diabetes Center is established, Holmgren said.

"We recognize this is a community health problem," he said.

Letters are going out soon to diabetes patients, explaining what services will be available.

The center, to be located at Affiliated's clinic in Willmar, will provide care for children and adults with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It'll also provide resources to improve the local standard of care for diabetes.

Details are still being worked out, but the new diabetes center will offer many of the same services as the Rice Diabetes Center, officials said Monday.

It's likely that the Rice Diabetes Center's certification with the American Diabetes Association -- a designation that allows Medicare reimbursement for diabetes education and self-management training -- can be transferred intact to the new Willmar Diabetes Center, Holmgren said.

"We have already started that process," he said.

The process of hiring staff -- some of whom might include former staff at the Rice Diabetes Center -- also will start immediately.

"I think we can get it all done by the end of the month," Holmgren said.

Rice Hospital has agreed to extend the closing date of its Diabetes Center to the end of September, to allow for the transition of its patients.

Holmgren said officials hope to redesign the program in ways that make it more financially sustainable.

Inadequate reimbursement and operating losses were what forced Rice Hospital to announce last month that its Diabetes Center and heart failure clinic were being discontinued.

Lorry Massa, chief executive of the hospital, said Monday that over the past six years, the Diabetes Center had cumulative losses of $1.2 million. So far this year, the program has lost $135,000, he said.

"We've been able to make changes but we've come to the limit," he said.

Holmgren said the new model might try using more mid-level practitioners, group sessions and other strategies.

"That's one of the questions we've been asking ourselves -- how can we sustain this?" he said. "We're approaching it from several different angles. It's going to be somewhat of an experiment: Can you find a model that delivers quality care and yet is financially viable? I feel we can do this."