WisBusiness: Gundersen Lutheran remains active in bad times

By Gregg Hoffmann

For WisBusiness.com

Gundersen Lutheran made big news right before the end of 2009 when it bought a minority share of Logistics Health Inc.

The move linked two La Crosse-based companies that have nationwide — even global — reach. But by no means is the move the only partnership and expansion Gundersen Lutheran has participated in during overall challenging times for any business.

The company, which consists of three corporations — Gundersen Lutheran Inc. (the parent corporation), Gundersen Clinics Ltd, and Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center — runs a non-profit hospital with more than 300 beds, over 20 for-profit clinics and provides health care services in 19 counties over three states — Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

It has partnerships with affiliated rural hospitals and nursing homes, as well as a Global Partners program. These affiliations and programs have continued to grow during the recession.

“We have continued to expand,” said Jerry Arndt, senior vice-president of business operations for Gundersen Lutheran. “I think it starts with our philosophy. We believe there will be a future. You can’t just hunker down and do nothing. There are opportunities all the time.

“To do nothing is a bad business plan in our opinion. We keep planning for the future and try to do some innovative things. We try to stick with our mission.”

That mission really started in the 19th Century when Dr. Adolf Gundersen first started providing health care in the area. The Lutheran Hospital first opened in 1902, and in 1917 Gundersen set a national precedent by insisting that the hospital have say over what doctors practiced at the hospital. Some doctors who were excluded sued but the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed with Gundersen.

After that the hospital became known for innovation, high standards and outreach. In 1995, Lutheran Hospital-La Crosse and Gundersen Clinic joined to form Gundersen Lutheran Inc.

Today, Gundersen Lutheran treats more than 1 million patients per year, combined inpatient and outpatient care, and employs more than 6,000 people, not including the doctors and associate staff. Those two groups number more than 700.

Gundersen Lutheran has been cited as an example of what modern health care facilities should strive for, with emphasis on quality health care and up-to-date facilities and record keeping.

Politicians as diverse as Democrats Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. Ron Kind and Republican Newt Gingrich have cited the company as an innovator during the health care debate.

At its La Crosse campus, Gundersen Lutheran recently converted a former Gund brewery building into a data center with state-of-the art record keeping. “That is being completed as we speak,” Arndt said during a January interview. “We’ve also updated equipment. Electronic medical record keeping is very important to providing quality care.”

The campus also receives a portion of its electricity from a partnership with nearby City Brewery, which captures methane from the brewing process and converts it to power through a generator. The campus also has undergone major retrofitting to make it more energy efficient. Such efforts help keep the cost of health care down, company officials say. The efforts were profiled in a WisBiz GreenBiz feature last year.

Gundersen Lutheran has expanded clinics in La Crescent, Minn., Onalaska, Tomah, Decorah, Iowa, and elsewhere in recent years. An ExpressCare clinic program has locations in Holmen, Onalaska and La Crosse. Another program has also been expanded to provide primary care in locations other than the usual health care facilities.

“We provide care at a facility in Ashley Furniture in Arcadia for example,” Arndt said. “We have another similar program at Rockwell in Richland Center.”

Affiliations with rural hospitals have grown. “We believe we can grow with rural hospitals, not hurt them through competition,” Arndt said. “We provide services at some of these regional hospitals, but don’t want to take away the importance of those facilities to their communities.”

Gundersen Lutheran also has expanded sponsorships and support for many community activities, charities and causes, including the Miracle Network and others. The outreach goes beyond the company’s geographic service area. The Global Partners program includes outreach to Nicaragua, Tanzania and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

On the day of the interview with WisBusiness.com, Arndt and others were coordinating the logistics of moving personnel and medical supplies to and from Haiti, after the earthquake there.

“Our mission is more than just making money,” Arndt said. “We don’t make much money on some of these outreach efforts. These programs and outreach provide us with opportunities to become bigger than just our own world here.”

The latest Gundersen Lutheran move — buying into Logistics Health (LHI) — provides potential opportunities for both making money and extending care and influence beyond the western Wisconsin area.

LHI has been a fast growing company that provides occupational health services to employers with geographically dispersed employees, including many in the military.

“It makes sense from an investment standpoint, since Logistics Health has been a rapidly growing company,” Arndt said. “We are diversifying our portfolio within the health care industry.

“There is an opportunity for synergistic growth for both companies in the future. It also is a local partnership, which will create jobs and help the local economy. I think it’s a win for both companies as well as the community. That‘s the kind of thing we‘re trying to do here at Gundersen Lutheran.”