Health care, elder care workforce at center of roundtable

Published 9:07 am Monday, April 17, 2023

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Community members gathered for a regional round table at Salem Lutheran Church Saturday morning to hear testimonies about affordable health care and concerns over the workforce in elder care.

District 25 Sen. Liz Boldon as well as 25A Rep. Kim Hicks were there to address what was being done to solve the concerns.

“We’re going to talk about the [MinnesotaCare] public option and why it’s important to pass that and what we can do to make sure that we’re increasing the workforce for nursing facilities, assisted-living facilities and caring for older adults that need care,” said Todd Lipperet, organizer of the event from Rural Organization Project of Isaiah Minnesota.

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Lipperet said he thought now was the time to act as state representatives and senators voted on budget bills, and said health insurance was coming up regularly in House meetings across the state.

“We have an opportunity right now to make a big change in getting more people in Minnesota affordable, high-quality health care by passing the MinnesotaCare public option, and we need to make sure that we do that this session,” he said.

It was important farmers, small business owners, home care workers and undocumented immigrants had that right, and noted officials from rural areas of the state heard about the problem a lot.

“We heard a lot about health care when we were having our meeting [here], a need for affordable health insurance,” he said. “Also a lot of concern about elder care.”

According to Lipperet, people earning over 200% above the federal poverty level no longer qualify for MinnesotaCare.

Those who don’t qualify and don’t have employment coverage can face high costs with high-risk, high-deductible plans, so people could risk their lives not seeing a provider.

Complicating the problem more, undocumented people aren’t eligible for MinnesotaCare at all.

Boldon was happy to talk about health care, especially as related to finding ways to address people’s concerns.

Boldon has been a registered nurse for 25 years, and said her concern was not leaving anyone behind.

“We all do better when everyone in our community has access to health care,” she said. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do as well.”

Brian Hullopeter, a general contractor and owner of both Brian Hullopeter Construction LLC and Prizm Painting and Finishing, spoke about the challenges he faces. Currently his business does not offer insurance to any of their four employees.

For him, affordability was the issue. That in turn presented the challenge of retaining employees.

Tavonna Johnson shared the story of her husband, a small business owner who passed away recently and did not have health insurance to cover cancer.

“Had to have $14,000 in 12 weeks or get him covered by insurance, otherwise he would not be able to receive chemotherapy,” she said, adding the announcement left her in shock and noting the health system was hard to navigate.

In addressing concerns over only the House bill, including undocumented people in MinnesotaCare, Hicks admitted the House bill was a good first step but should not be the final step.

“I actually don’t think it goes far enough,” she said.

She still had concerns regarding people 65 and older and disabled people, and argued health care was a right and that people shouldn’t have to decide whether to go bankrupt or not.

“It is immoral, it is inappropriate and it needs to stop,” she said, while admitting it would be expensive to change the health system.

Boldon described the health care system as one that is not working.

The meeting then shifted to issues facing health care workers who worked in elder care.

“A lot of concern about what’s happening in elder care,” Lipperet said. “Wanted to make sure that we have a work force that’s caring for older adults.”

Jerry Noland, a board member at St. John’s Lutheran Community, acknowledged his wife used to be a social worker.

“We’re losing money,” he said, describing the biggest problem the board was seeing. “There’s been a number of nursing homes throughout Minnesota and throughout the nation that have actually gone out of business.”

The problem for him: there wasn’t enough staff.

“If you want to go where you want to go, make your plans early because someone will make the plans for you if you don’t,” he said.

Lisa Gjersvik told the story about her mother’s time at a long-term care facility, which happened after coming out of a hospital stay but couldn’t do the rehab necessary for her to return to her house.

She said feeding residents was a two-hour affair, something she believed could be fixed with more staff.

Her mother also had to wait 10 minutes for care after pushing a call button, and that it was two or three weeks before she received a shower.

“I think it had something to do with the labor shortage,” she said. “I do know that there is a great deal of turnover at their work and that they often don’t have enough of the staff to cover the shift. So they rely on the temp workers who don’t always work at that same facility.”

And that, she argued, was being short-changed from a resident’s perspective.

Hicks and Boldon were asked if they supported the SEIU Healthcare contract and what they would do to lead investments in elder care workforce.

Hicks said the average wage for a worker was $13.56 per hour and hadn’t increased recently, and at the same time said nursing homes and assisted living were not equal.

She wanted to fix that, but said it would cost almost $4 billion to bring home care workers and PCAs up to $20 per hour in four years, and said the huge surplus was one-time money.

“We cannot change wage structures with one-time money,” she said.

At the same time, she was excited about the PCA contract that would raise money to almost $18 per hour.

Boldon told the audience it was not fair to ask people to continue the work simply out of the goodness of their hearts.

“We do need to be sure that folks are able to make a living wage,” she said.

But she said there was a math problem between doing the right thing and the reality of the money they have.

“We have to talk about revenue raisers,” she said. “We need to tax the rich is what we need to do. We need to have wealthy Minnesotans pay what they owe, and that’s not happening right now.”

At the end of the meeting, Lipperet asked participants to call Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic. He also provided them numbers to reach them at.

The event was put on by the Rural Organizing Project of Isaiah Minnesota.

According to Lipperet, Isaiah Minnesota is an organization that puts together events with faith communities and also helps to organize child care centers across the state.

The project started with a gathering of state leaders from rural areas.

“We focus on racial and economic equity, social justice and creating communities where everybody belongs,” he said.