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Nursing homes in the crosshairs of GOP health plan: Big turnout for healthcare forum in Detroit Lakes

Rod Nord asks a question at the healthcare forum in Detroit Lakes Thursday, sponsored by the lakes Area Indivisible group. Nathan Bowe/Tribune1 / 3
Concerned about the proposed American Health Care Act, more than 100 people showed up for a healthcare forum Thursday in Detroit Lakes. Nathan Bowe/Tribune2 / 3
The three panelists at a two-hour healthcare forum at the Detroit Lakes Holiday Inn. The event drew a well-informed, courteous crowd. Nathan Bowe/Tribune3 / 3

It's a sign of the times that a Detroit Lakes police officer stood in front of a Holiday Inn banquet room Thursday night, full of several hundred people who came to talk about health insurance.

As it turns out, he had an easy time of it. There were no fist fights, yelling, or even cross words. Though passionate at times, people who lined up to ask questions were almost all respectful, well informed and courteous towards the three panelists. They were there to answer questions about how the Republican-designed American Health Care Act could change healthcare in Detroit Lakes.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Detroit Lakes fielded the most questions, but two others held their own—Essentia Health St. Mary's President Peter Jacobson and Katie Lundmark, executive director of Ecumen Detroit Lakes.

Two DFL state lawmakers also attended in the audience—Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley and Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth. U.S. Sens Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken sent staffers.

None of the four Republican state lawmakers who represent the area showed up to take the heat for the unpopular federal bills.

The U.S. Senate version of the bill would end Medicaid as we know it—not good news for the 64 percent of nursing home residents who pay for their care through Medicaid.

"The proposed cuts would be devastating to both our nursing homes and community services (which help people to live independently) said Lundmark, whose company, Ecumen, owns and manages nursing homes, assisted living and other care facilities in the region. "It would very much impact seniors' care in our organizations. It would eventually push dollars back on individuals to pay, and it would create significant problems for Minnesota's healthcare programs," which are co-funded at the federal level, she said.

Both the U.S. House bill, which has passed, and the Senate bill, which awaits a vote, "would create the very real possibility that seniors would no longer have long-term care facilities," Lundmark said. "Where will these individuals get the money to be able to pay for it?"

It's not like they can go out and get jobs, they don't generally have huge savings, and, she said, this is no way for the nation to prepare for the wave of aging Baby Boomers.

"Minnesota is known as a national leader in healthcare, I just really hate to see that change," she said.

The Republican plan would also hurt hospitals, by removing the critical care funding for smaller hospitals, and by forcing them to return to the days of patients with no insurance having to use the emergency room for their primary care.

Jacobson, the hospital administrator, said it would be a move backwards from cost-saving measures that have been put in place the past several years.

"We need a healthcare system that encourages patients to seek the appropriate level of care, from the right person, in the right place, at the right time," he said. "We also need to encourage and hold providers to do the same thing—the current system has not historically worked this way, and that contributed to cost issues and care issues."

Rep. Peterson said the United States spends 18 percent of its gross domestic product on healthcare, while no other nation spends more than 10 percent, and yet health outcomes for Americans are worse. "Something is definitely not right," he said. He did not vote for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) because there were elements he thought would not work, like forcing people to buy insurance, but he also did not vote to repeal it later, because there were elements that worked well, like covering people with preexisting conditions.

Republicans are now making the same mistake Democrats did by trying to ram the healthcare bill through without any support from the opposition party, he said. "Something this complicated will always need to be fixed," he said. If the Republicans pass it, they won't be able to fix it, just as happened with Democrats and Obamacare, he said. "We will have problems until a bipartisan bill is passed."

Although it was clear from the questions that there was a lot of support for single-payer or Medicare-for-all national health insurance, Peterson said he wasn't ready to "jump off that cliff" yet. He had hoped that Medicare would be expanded to cover those 55 and older when Obamacare was passed. That would have been a good way to test the waters, he said. But if a bipartisan solution isn't found in the next 10 years, Peterson believes the nation will revolt, for better or worse, and insist on a national healthcare system that covers everybody.

The healthcare forum was sponsored by the Lakes Area Indivisible group.