Allina Health system has created a partnership with Optum, the health services division of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, that could develop up to a dozen new ambulatory surgery centers over the next five years.

Minneapolis-based Allina did not release financial terms of the development agreement, which was finalized in December.

Plans call for Optum to begin managing in February Allina's surgery center at the West Health medical campus in Plymouth. Optum is one of the nation's largest operators of surgery centers, a business that grew significantly with the acquisition three years ago of a company called Surgical Care Affiliates.

"This partnership with SCA — Surgical Care Affiliates — represents for us an opportunity to bring care closer to our community," said Lisa Shannon, the chief operating officer of Allina, in an interview.

"We have earmarked eight to 12 of these centers over a time horizon that still needs to be defined," Shannon said. "Our goal is that the community begins to see this service becoming increasingly available in the next two years. Our plans look over three to five years."

Ambulatory surgical centers are licensed in Minnesota to provide surgical procedures that do not require overnight inpatient hospital care. The centers have grown as technology improvements, financial pressures and other factors have pushed more medical procedures outside of inpatient hospitals.

From 2009 to 2018, the number of licensed ambulatory surgery centers in the state increased from 56 to 81, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The department's Health Economics Program said total procedures per-year increased by about 50% during the time period, with 456,912 procedures in 2018.

Allina Health System operates 11 hospitals including Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis and United Hospital in St. Paul. It's one of the state's largest nonprofit groups, with more than 90 clinics and about 29,000 employees.

UnitedHealth Group is one of the nation's largest health care companies, including the UnitedHealthcare, which is the nation's largest insurer.

The company's Optum division has been making a push in recent years to get closer to patients by operating not just surgery centers but also urgent-care centers and primary-care practices.

"SCA is pleased to be working with Allina and we look forward to our partnership delivering high quality outcomes for patients while reducing the total cost of care," the company said in a statement.

In 2018, Optum's SCA business operated more than 200 surgical facilities, including ambulatory surgery centers and surgical hospitals, in partnership with approximately 3,000 physicians.

When UnitedHealth Group paid $2.3 billion to acquire the business in 2017, SCA had partnerships with three surgery centers in Minnesota.

Bill Evans, a vice president at Allina, said Optum/SCA is expected to become an equity partner in the new surgery centers.

Ambulatory surgery centers are seen as a lower-cost alternative to hospitals for certain procedures.

Over the past year or so, a number of health insurers have been introducing policies that try to steer more patients to the facilities for care.

"We are committed to supporting the community with lower-cost settings of care," said Shannon, the chief operating officer at Allina.

"While the payers did not trigger our pursuit of this plan ... we believe the payers are going to be positively encouraged by our development."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744 Twitter: @chrissnowbeck