The St. Joseph's Hospital campus in downtown St. Paul is being converted into a center for community wellness and health equity, though it will continue to provide inpatient mental health care at least through next summer.
Fairview Health Services on Tuesday announced the new plans for the state's oldest hospital, which had wound down general inpatient services over the past year and was used for several months as a stand-alone COVID-19 treatment center until that ceased in the spring.
A 2021 community survey found health care services to be inadequate, especially for lower-income and minority people in the St. Paul area, and Fairview leaders said the repurposing of St. Joseph's will fill those gaps in a new way.
Health disparities by race, income and ZIP code can't be addressed within hospitals alone but demand wellness and prevention services that keep people out of hospitals in the first place, said James Hereford, Fairview's chief executive. "Certainly it has been demonstrated that in St. Paul, within a little less than a mile and a half, you can almost see a decade difference in life expectancy. St. Paul and the East Metro I think are great proving grounds to say, 'How do we take this innovative approach and apply it?'"
Renovations will begin in January on the campus, and Minnesota Community Care, a federally qualified health center, will open a clinic there next summer that will provide low-cost or free primary care and health education.
Second Harvest Heartland will hold pop-up food shelves at the center to address local nutritional needs while Ebenezer Senior Living will provide day adult services to help seniors living at home maintain active lifestyles. The M Health Fairview medical system also will expand outpatient mental health and addiction services at the site.
"Reliable access to healthy, familiar foods is an essential building block to a healthy life. And we know that food insecurity is not an isolated experience," said Allison O'Toole, Second Harvest's chief executive, in a statement.
Fairview leaders in late 2019 had targeted the money-losing St. Joseph's for closure as a hospital along with the Bethesda long-term acute care hospital, also in St. Paul. Both were temporarily used to expand Minnesota's capacity for treating COVID-19 patients, but their shutdowns occurred largely on schedule — with Bethesda being converted into transitional housing for the homeless through a lease agreement with Ramsey County.
Hereford said neither facility would have helped much to address the latest COVID-19 wave, because the current shortage isn't physical hospital beds but available doctors and nurses to staff them.
St. Joseph's had become a hub of inpatient mental health care for the M Health Fairview system following Fairview's merger with its former parent organization, HealthEast, in 2017. Continued inpatient care at the hospital will buy time for Fairview leaders as they select an East Metro site to build a new inpatient mental health hospital and pursue a state legislative waiver to permit the project.
Long-term acute care beds also will remain available at St. Joseph's for people with prolonged recoveries following hospitalizations.
Fairview intends to measure the performance of the center in addressing disparities, but that will take time as the community comes to know and trust it as a helpful resource, said Diane Tran, Fairview's executive director of community health equity and engagement.
The center should make good on Fairview's commitment to address local health disparities and heal any bitterness people in the East Metro have over the closure of Bethesda and St. Joseph's as inpatient facilities, even if they weren't being used as much anymore, Tran said.
"It's hard to lose more things even if they weren't the best things that could be there," she said. "All we can do in our work is keep moving forward and trying to honor as best we can the commitment we have made ... To me, it feels like we are making good on our word."