Tour puts focus on rural health care

BLUE EARTH — Health care professionals from around the area sat down with state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, for a roundtable discussion in Blue Earth earlier this week.

The visit was part of Lourey’s 10-city tour across Minnesota. He has been to cities such as Duluth, Ely, Brainerd, Fergus Falls, St. Cloud and Marshall.

“I’ve really been interested in what’s happening out on the street,” he said. “What’s working, what’s not working, what are the obstacles.”

Lourey is a ranking minority member of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, with health care being one of his top issues.

“Watching the last seven or so years, just sort of the political conversation coming off the rails, has been really disheartening to me and very difficult,” he said.

The discussion lasted about two hours, with attendees voicing concerns and looking for solutions to problems related to health care in rural Minnesota.

Topics included availability and affordability of care; aging populations; medical professional shortages; funding for hospitals; and the cost for medical professionals of earning credentials.

Rick Ash, administrator for United Hospital District in Blue Earth, said one issue that has come out of the health care debate is that more time and energy is going into figuring out payment and how the system works than working to thrive as health providers.

“We are all fighting to stay alive,” he said.

One recurring topic at the roundtable was mental health and how to affordably and effectively offer patients the support they need.

Ash said that because many people in the area who are dealing with mental health issues are poor, reimbursement from Medicaid and other programs just barely covers the direct salaries of the full-time psychologist and full-time social worker employed at UHD.

“This is not me whining, this is the reality,” he said.

Ash said medical professionals with a focus on mental health are necessary to reduce emergency room visits and negative outcomes for those who struggle with mental illness.

“When I heard that [the government] was reducing behavior health I was like, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing?'” Ash said.

Leota Lind, chief executive officer for South Country Health Alliance, said one problem with the current system is that in order for someone with a mental illness to qualify for care, they have to already have chronic mental health issues, and it is important to figure out how to identify mental health issues in patients prior to an emergency.

Following the two-hour discussion, Lourey said he will bring the conversations he has had during his tour back to the Legislature, with hopes of having productive and fact-based discussions to yield better results, decisions and support when it comes to health care.

“It looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but it is going to get better,” he said. “It takes conversations and people getting together.”