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HealthPartners is permanently closing seven clinics plus a drug and alcohol treatment program as health system officials say COVID-19 has accelerated a shift of patients from brick-and-mortar medical offices to online health care.

This spring, Bloomington-based HealthPartners and other clinic networks across Minnesota announced temporary closures for some medical offices as stay-at-home orders and pandemic concerns prompted many patients not to use the clinics. A ban on elective procedures to conserve supplies for COVID-19 also sapped demand for health care this spring.

Some clinics are reopening as elective surgeries resume and patients return to medical offices, but HealthPartners announced Wednesday that it will not reopen seven of its clinics as well as the drug and alcohol program at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

"Consumer preferences are evolving, and affordability pressures are real," said Andrea Walsh, the chief executive at HealthPartners, in a statement. "These steps anticipate the changing needs of our patients, members and the community, and position HealthPartners for the future."

HealthPartners is the second-largest nonprofit group in the state, with about 26,000 total employees and revenue last year of $7.25 billion. The shift to online care has been evident at other health care systems as well.

This spring, Minneapolis-based Allina Health System said 60% of all scheduled clinic visits were occurring through secure online video visits — 5,000 per day compared with just 150 per day before the pandemic. In April, Allina temporarily closed 18 clinics and fully closed two others.

During March and April, Fairview Health System hosted more than 26,000 visits to its OnCare program for online diagnosis and treatment of minor ailments — more than triple the 7,000 visits in all of 2019. Fairview in April temporarily stopped walk-in care at 17 clinics.

The shift to online care is an important trend, but it's likely not the only driver of the closures at HealthPartners, said Allan Baumgarten, an independent health care analyst. More recent numbers suggest that as economies partly reopen, demand for online care is falling some, Baumgarten said, although not to pre-COVID levels.

Another likely factor, he said, is a recent decline in health insurance customers at HealthPartners, which sells health plans in addition to running nine hospitals and dozens of clinics. Health systems are seeing the limits of strategies that had them opening clinics across a much wider geographic span — almost like the spread of retail pharmacies.

"I think all these health systems are rethinking this retail strategy," Baumgarten said, "and how many points of presence they want to or need to have."

Beyond consolidating some clinical services, HealthPartners is expanding video visits and other digital capabilities. The health system says clinicians have conducted nearly 300,000 video visits since early March.

Some jobs likely will be eliminated, but most workers will shift to other locations, said HealthPartners spokesman Vince Rivard. He said 17 chiropractors have been laid off.

"COVID accelerated our efforts to rethink how and where we need bricks and mortar to deliver to care and how we can meet consumer needs in new ways, like video visits," Rivard said via e-mail. "The move to consolidate our clinic operations will help us deliver more affordable care because facility overhead costs can be reduced."

As health care systems in April suffered financially from the shutdown of elective surgeries for COVID-19 preparations, HealthPartners announced temporary clinic closures as well as a pay cut for top executives and furloughs for 2,600 workers.

On Wednesday, HealthPartners said it has kept more than 50 clinics across the region open during the pandemic and will now reopen four medical clinics and several dental clinics that had temporarily suspended services. The medical clinics are located in Eagan, Elk River, Wayzata and St. Louis Park.

In addition, some clinics that had been reserved only for patients with respiratory symptoms are converting back to full-service status.

"Our response to COVID-19 has led to innovation in caring for and serving people — for today as well as into the future," Walsh said in a statement. "This has included the expansion of telemedicine, drive-up testing and many other new models of care for our patients.

HealthPartners says the following clinics will not reopen: Park Nicollet Cottage Grove; Highland Park in St. Paul; Riverside in Minneapolis; Stillwater Medical Group Mahtomedi; and Westfields HealthStation in New Richmond, Wis.

Also closing are Regions Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program in St. Paul; Regions Maplewood Behavioral Health Clinic; and HealthPartners' Central Minnesota Clinic in the Sartell/St. Cloud area. The organization is considering whether to continue dental services in the St. Cloud area.