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Albert Lea community leaders have enticed an Iowa health care provider to open a clinic and urgent care facility in their city, providing a challenger to the Mayo Clinic Health System, which upset many residents when it moved key inpatient hospital services out of town.

MercyOne North Iowa is not planning to restore hospital services in Albert Lea, but community activists said Thursday that it will bolster the primary care and specialty services they feared they would lose under a realignment that Mayo announced in 2017.

The Mason City, Iowa-based provider will open an Albert Lea clinic in summer 2020 that will include extended and weekend urgent-care hours and offices for visiting specialists. If successful, MercyOne could add an imaging center and ambulatory care center as well.

Brad Arends of the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition and Save our Healthcare, which was created two years ago to fight the Mayo hospital realignment, predicted the increased clinical competition would improve care and lower costs.

“We not only are on a path to restore services that have been removed from Albert Lea, but we also will have more specialists available,” he said, “and our cost of care will be substantially lower than most communities in south-central and southeastern Minnesota.”

The organization signed a letter of intent with MercyOne on Thursday, and will have a financial stake in the clinic and share in its cost.

At a time when many rural hospitals are struggling, Mayo said its realignment would improve efficiencies and enhance its ability to recruit top doctors. The realignment consolidated all inpatient surgeries, baby deliveries and inpatient medical-surgical units to its hospital in Austin, 20 miles east of Albert Lea.

The Albert Lea hospital retained an emergency department and outpatient surgeries, and Mayo moved all inpatient mental health care there, but community leaders objected to the loss of traditional hospital services and of doctors who might relocate to Austin.

Mayo also recently announced plans to expand an Express Care clinic at the local Hy-Vee.

A spokesperson for MercyOne North Iowa, which is part of Iowa’s largest hospital and clinic system, expressed excitement at the new clinic, and said it does not consider it a rival to Mayo.

“Our focus is on providing high quality but cost-effective care for that community,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Duckert. “We aren’t doing it to be for or against Mayo. It’s us trying to help support the community, which reached out to us.”

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744