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New diabetes center to open next week

WILLMAR -- Willmar Medical Services is starting the process this week of organizing its new diabetes center and setting up patient appointments.

Monday is opening day for what officials hope will be a streamlined, more efficient way of delivering outpatient diabetes care that reins in costs without sacrificing quality.

The new Willmar Diabetes Center replaces Rice Memorial Hospital's Diabetes and Nutrition Center, which closed Tuesday, a victim of $3 million in budget cuts at the city-owned hospital.

It's a transition for patients but changes will be minimal, said Dr. David Newcomer, medical director of the Willmar Diabetes Center.

"The services are going to be very similar," he said. "We're bringing over the educational structure. I don't think patients will see much difference."

Local medical providers were left scrambling last month when Rice Hospital announced it was dropping its outpatient diabetes program. The hospital also discontinued an innovative program that offered day-to-day management for people with congestive heart failure.

Nearly 400 diabetes patients were directly affected.

A major gap in services loomed, until Willmar Medical Services -- a joint venture owned 50-50 by Rice Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers -- stepped forward with a plan to create its own diabetes center. The joint venture also owns and operates medical imaging services, cancer services and the outpatient Willmar Surgery Center.

The past few weeks have seen intensive work behind the scenes.

A location has been found, next to the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar. A dietitian and a diabetes nurse educator have been hired. Letters have been sent out to patients.

Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Willmar Medical Services, said he expects the program to be used by a wide variety of diabetes patients.

"There will be no restrictions," he said.

Besides basic education to help people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes manage their disease, the Willmar Diabetes Center will work with special-needs populations, such as children and pregnant women with diabetes and patients who use insulin pumps, Holmgren said.

He and Newcomer said patients have been eager for the program to start.

"They really appreciate that there's going to be a program in the future. The Diabetes Center is not going to go away. There's been very positive feedback," Holmgren said.

Estimates are hard to come by, but Willmar Medical Services predicts that up to 300 patients could use the Willmar Diabetes Center within the first year.

Creating the new program hasn't been easy.

Willmar Medical Services had less than a month to come up with a plan and work out all the details.

Holmgren said it's still "a work in progress."

Paperwork is still under way to transfer the Rice Diabetes Center's American Diabetes Association certification to the Willmar Diabetes Center, a designation that will allow for Medicare reimbursement. More staff and training also are still needed, Holmgren said.

"I think we do need some additional time to adjust to volumes," he said.

It's a new approach for Affiliated, which has provided diabetes care but hasn't had a true diabetes center, Newcomer said.

"One big challenge has been the melding of our staff and integrating them into the process that's already been in place at Rice," he said.

Teamwork and coordination will be critical to the success of the program, he and Holmgren said.

"I think it's really important that there's good communication," Holmgren said.

An even bigger challenge is how to make the Willmar Diabetes Center financially viable without sacrificing quality of care.

Inadequate reimbursement was ultimately the reason Rice Hospital closed its Diabetes Center. Hospital officials said the program never broke even; in fact, it accumulated more than a $1 million loss over the past six years.

Willmar Medical Services thinks it can try some strategies -- such as using mid-level providers, group sessions and scheduling efficiencies -- that will help make the program less expensive to operate.

"One of the things we're really looking at is the right person providing the right service," Newcomer said. "We're going to try to streamline the process to make sure we're working efficiently."

Down the road, it's hoped that the diabetes program can expand to Affiliated clinics in eight other towns in the region. Outreach services might also be offered at some of the regional hospitals, Holmgren said.

"I think this is very unique, having a joint venture that can step forward and do this," he said.

It's a financial risk that Willmar Medical Services is taking, but officials believe it's "the right thing to do for patients," Newcomer said. "I think the community should be very proud of the job the ACMC staff has done in turning this around and getting this started in such a short time."