Franken’s staff talks rural health care during meeting at The Hormel Institute in Austin

Published 10:02 am Friday, June 19, 2015

Mental health a major concern

AUSTIN — Health care accessibility, affordability and barriers to the right treatment are all issues in need of addressing, according to local health care experts.

A group of health care officials, from Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin employees to a Mower County Senior Center representative, gathered at The Hormel Institute Wednesday to discuss rural health care policy with staff working for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota.

Al Franken

Al Franken

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Franken’s staff has toured the state on a so-called rural health tour to discuss the biggest needs of Greater Minnesota’s patients and health care professionals. Franken is the co-chairman of the Senate’s Rural Health Caucus and hopes to gather more information on rural health care policy.

The group discussed health care needs across the county, from a lack of senior memory facilities to a severe shortage of mental health services in the area.

“Mental health is in a critical stage right now,” said Samantha Mills, a field representative for Franken.

Non-emergency mental health appointments can take several months to book in the area because there’s not enough funding mechanisms for mental health providers, which means fewer psychiatrists and psychologists available to help people.

Dr. Mark Ciota, CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, said some families with teenagers in need of mental health services may check in at the Austin hospital but get treated in Duluth because there’s not enough mental health access in Mower County. There’s only 12 mental health emergency beds at the Austin hospital. Once those are booked, residents in need are placed in the hospital’s emergency room beds, which takes away from other ER patients.

Even senior mental health is becoming an issue. Mower County Senior Center Executive Director Sara Schafer said residents with mental health problems will visit the senior center for years while struggling with mental health issues but receive no treatment from their providers.

“That is definitely a challenge for us because we don’t know how to deal with it,” she said.

Mower Refreshed Coordinator Sandy Anderson said area teens and adults have all identified more mental health services as a top issue through various surveys and focus groups. Teens need access to non-emergency mental health care in time to prevent whatever struggles they have from becoming crises, but that isn’t always happening according to Anderson.

Yet health care access, especially among the area poor and communities of color, has and continues to be a large challenge for health care providers. Austin Aspires Executive Director Jennifer Lawhead has interviewed many residents about education-related issues and found simple health care access to be a challenge for some students. In some instances, students can’t get needed dental care because little to no providers in Austin take low-income insurance.

“It’s tough to learn when you’ve got a huge cavity in your mouth and it hurts,” she said.

Yet experts did highlight several programs that help residents access treatment, from Mower Refreshed’s efforts to build health care sources among refugee and immigrant communities to Mayo Clinic Health System’s community health kiosks, which allow residents to get health care access via teleconferencing.

Ciota said the kiosks have gotten great response from Austin Public Schools employees, among other users, with no technological barriers as each kiosk is staffed by hospital personnel. Other experts said the kiosks have earned a positive reputation for health care access, and Ciota said hospital officials were looking to partner with other groups to bring more kiosks to the community.

“It’s pretty nifty,” Anderson said.

Franken’s staff collected information from Mower County and other communities across the state over 25 meetings. Staff members hope to release a report on rural health policy needs and recommendations later this month.