In rural health care talks, focus is on access and transparency

Published 8:26 pm Friday, June 22, 2018

Much like a hospital gown, health care panelists at Friday’s “Eggs and Issues” event said focus points in conversations about rural health care in Minnesota are all about access and transparency.

Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce board member Tricia Dahl, who works at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, said the conversation was intended to bring awareness to the community on a community issue and to enlighten people on the challenges and complexities of health care.

At the event hosted by the Chamber, Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper, District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker, State Director at USDA Rural Development Brad Finstad and Executive Director of Government and Community Relations at CentraCare Health Santo Cruz shared their perspectives on the challenges and status of rural health care in Minnesota. County Health Plans Executive Director Steve Gottwalt moderated.

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“When we look at these, the issue and the question of how do you define the issues … and just rural health care as a whole, I think the first major issue is that we’re looking at these as problems,” he said. Rather, he encouraged reframing them as opportunities.

One of the opportunities panelists espoused was telemedicine, a practice that uses phone calls or technology like videoconferences to provide long-distance care. The panelists spoke of telemedicine as one of the ways people are working to innovate and solve problems in Minnesota.

“We don’t often think of technology as revolutionizing rural life, but it is,” Gottwalt said.

Cruz said telemedicine’s role in the future “really cannot be overstated.”

Additionally, due to a world that is constantly inundated with new information at a rapid rate, Schomacker said health care will be the sector benefiting most from that new information.

“Everything we know about health care today is going to be different, even five years from now,” Schomacker said.

Although telemedicine is one option, it scratches the surface of what the Department of Human Services commissioner said is the biggest problem in greater Minnesota, and particularly southern Minnesota: access.

“The other problems are really symptoms of the bigger access problem,” Piper said.

The issue there is the cost to the state and federal government in order to solve the access issue. Unless the state wants all its funding to go toward public health care, she said, there needs to be a new solution.

“Innovation and Minnesota’s legacy as an innovator in health care is going to be key in trying to move the needle forward to improve access to rural Minnesota services for people,” Piper said.

In addition, panelists discussed the positive and negative impacts of the Affordable Care Act on Minnesota, citing an exodus of health insurance providers on the individual market but an increase in a nationwide conversation and emphasis on transparency and accountability with insurance costs, which Piper attributed largely to the Affordable Care Act’s inception. Gottwalt said questions on health care delivery and its drivers are not unique to southern Minnesota.

“It’s not just happening here,” he said. “It’s happening everywhere.”

And as the conversation continues, the key is to focus on working together to fight the problem rather than each other, Cruz said.

“That strategy of kind of circling the wagons and pointing outward rather than circling the wagons and pointing inward is key,” he said.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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