GRAND FORKS – Todd Forkel, the new CEO of Altru Health System, arrived at work this week. Like any new recruit in an important new role, he’s been listening and learning more this week than anything else – making the rounds of clinics and ERs, shaking hands and introducing himself.
But in an interview, he offered insight into how he wants to lead Altru, which is now at a pivotal moment in its history. The health care group (cross your fingers) is emerging from the worst of the pandemic, advancing construction of a new hospital in Grand Forks and considering an expansion to Devils Lake.
It also shakes up the sudden departure of Altru Chairman Steven Weiser, who was abruptly fired late last month by Altru’s Board of Directors. The change has fueled rumors that Altru could be acquired soon – an idea Forkel hushed up this week.
“Altru is definitely not for sale. Altru has a strong sense of identity to continue to be community driven,” Forkel said, which he says is a great benefit to the Grand Forks area. “Our intention is to continue to remain a community-led health system.”
It’s the same response Altru executives gave in early 2020, when two executives were fired weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and as rumors swirled about the future of the health system.
But over the next two years, COVID-19 disrupted the hospital’s finances, temporarily halting major sources of revenue and pausing construction of Altru’s new hospital. Altru, like many other healthcare systems, has faced difficult questions about staff availability in the face of labor shortages. These acquisition rumors are persistent, and in an age of hospital consolidation — in which healthcare groups seem to be constantly expanding their footprints and gobbling up others — it’s surely a good question once again.
Hiring Forkel appears to be one of the strongest responses Altru can give: the healthcare group is still betting on an independent future. Karen Thingelstad, chairwoman of the board of Altru, said Forkel stood out among the candidates for her desire to work for an independent healthcare system.
“That was probably one of the keys for us, having a big slate of candidates,” Thingelstad said. “…I know it’s a rumor going around all the time, but there’s no idea not to stay independent.”
And Thingelstad says the ship has been righted, with Altru achieving an operating margin of 3.6% in 2021. She declined to comment directly on former chairman Weiser’s abrupt exit, but argued that the high-profile departures that Altru has seen in the last two years – which were briefly cited in the bond downgrades – do not reflect Altru’s health or future.
“I can’t comment on the specifics, but I can say I don’t think it’s a problem,” Thingelstad said. “I don’t think it’s a trend. I think that’s something that unfortunately happens sometimes. The board must make decisions that are in the best interests of the organization as a whole. And sometimes, these are very difficult decisions.
Thingelstad also said Altru had recently been in contact with “rating agencies”, which it said were “satisfied” and “no more questions” about Altru’s stability. A spokesperson for Altru, in a later email, said it was “checking in with our chief financial officer” after the leadership changes at the end of last month.
Amid the changes and rumors, what’s next for Altru Health System? (Published in 2020)
Forkel comes to Altru through Avera Health, where he ran St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre, SD, as well as, in a remarkable career coincidence, St. Luke’s in Aberdeen, the hospital in which he is not.
“And, in fact, my three children were also born in this hospital,” he said. “I started my career there as an X-ray technician. I always joke with people, I actually worked for a living before becoming an administrator.
His resume traces a path from high school to the Air Force to degrees in health and business administration. Then came a hospital career that went from radiologist to hospital director.
One thing Forkel says he’s looking at now is Altru’s staffing. Not only does his attention come as workforce challenges hit hospitals across the country – with nurses often burned out and healthcare workers at various levels hard to find – but he said that soon the sector health care will likely be hit by a wave of baby boomer retirements.
“For me, the number one problem is our people. The staff went through what was described by many as a traumatic event but worthy of caring for our community,” Forkel said. “So the health and well-being of our staff and their ability to strike a balance between work and private life, when it’s really difficult to do, whether there are positions open or a raise in progress, are definitely something that worries me and we’ll laser in on.
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Forkel also spoke briefly about his leadership philosophy.
“For me, making Altru the best place to work is about being a visible leader. Transparency being front and center, rounding up with staff…for me, the foundation of leadership is serving others.