DULUTH — With an eye toward future pandemics, Essentia Health is leading a nationwide effort to increase bed capacity in intensive care units.

The Duluth-based health care system is seeking $1 billion in federal funding to support the creation of the "ICU Readiness Fund," which would bring 2,500 ICU beds to hospitals in 10 regions across the nation. The beds would address a present need for greater ICU capacity, as well as needs that arise from future pandemics.

Around $101 million of the program's funding would ideally be directed to Essentia for creation of approximately 250 beds as part of its Vision Northland project.

The $800 million Vision Northland project entails constructing a new hospital tower, larger surgical suits and clinic space in downtown Duluth. The new beds would bring the hospital's total ICU-capable beds, which can pivot from serving noncritical patients to ICU patients, from the planned 64 beds to 288.

The remaining beds would be in hospitals in nine other regions, with priority given to hospitals working on construction projects — a cost-efficient way to increase bed capacity, said Dr. Jon Pryor, vice president of Essentia's east market.

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"We are not doing this for Essentia. This is of zero benefit to us. We lose money on COVID patients," he said. "We're pushing it because we need this. We are woefully prepared for this pandemic, and we will be woefully prepared for the next one."

There's no other way to fund the construction of ICU beds, Pryor said.

Jon Pryor
Jon Pryor

"We don't have an extra hundred million. I don't think anybody probably does, especially now with COVID," he said.

The ICU Readiness Fund will likely require hospitals to apply through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Andrew Askew, vice president of public policy at Essentia.

Essentia is lobbying for selection as it's in the midst of the nation's second-largest health care construction project and has close ties to rural areas. The health system has locations in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

A recent study from the Health Affairs journal found that nearly half of the lowest-income communities had no ICU beds in their communities, while only around 3% of the highest-income communities had no ICU beds. These income disparities were more pronounced in rural areas compared to urban communities.

The program has captured bipartisan support, with numerous local lawmakers authoring a letter in support to Congress, Askew said.

"This is our opportunity to make an investment in a strategic stockpile of ICU readiness in less time and with less money than almost anywhere else in the USA because the hospital is currently under construction," the April 2020 letter to Congress said.

Authors include Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and numerous other state lawmakers.

Essentia has also seen interest from Senate and House members, including U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and has the support of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, Askew said.

The health care system is in conversations with other hospitals about signing on, but no other system has officially pledged support. Pryor said hospitals are managing a lot at the moment with COVID-19.

"In all of our discussions with staff and the state and federal level, we've never heard anyone say 'no' or 'this is a bad idea,'" Pryor said.

The need for ICU beds was a primary concern during the first few weeks of the pandemic. Local health departments and health providers began identifying and turning large venues into ICU overflow areas, Pryor said.

Essentia leaders say they recognized this need existed nationwide — and wanted to avoid future outbreaks like those that occurred in New York City — so they decided to elevate their program to the national level.

The program may be similar to the Regional Treatment Network for Ebola and Other Special Pathogens program, which funds nine health systems that become hubs for treating patients who have highly infectious diseases. Or, the program could be funded through the Regional Disaster Health Response System that works to establish a more coherent disaster response system.

"We think that we're one of the best health systems in rural America, so we already have a national presence," Pryor said. "We try to influence health care beyond our communities."

They're expecting to see funding for the program included in future federal coronavirus packages, but will most likely see movement after the election, Askew said.

They hope to secure funding by August of next year, at which point the construction will be too far along to include additional ICU beds.