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New healthcare plan could have dire effects for county residents: Local healthcare leaders share concerns with Franken, Piper

Local health care providers are concerned that the GOP's newly proposed health care reform plan will leave Otter Tail County residents without insurance or grossly under-insured, leaving hospitals to pick up the bill.

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Sen. Al Franken, left, talks with Stacy Hennen, Director of Grant County Human Services, and Deb Sjostrom, Otter Tail County Director of Human Services after a listening session Friday, March 17, at Perham Health, on a proposed healthcare plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Rural health care providers, including Perham Health leaders, are concerned about residents losing health coverage under the new plan. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS

Local health care providers are concerned that the GOP's newly proposed health care reform plan will leave Otter Tail County residents without insurance or grossly under-insured, leaving hospitals to pick up the bill.

These concerns and others were shared by a handful of county health care leaders who met for a listening session with Sen. Al Franken and Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper at Perham Health last Friday. The group focused on the impact the plan would have on rural areas.

"(This plan) is being attacked from so many directions," Franken said. "I don't think it's going to happen. But it's helpful to hear from real people on the issues with it."

County public health and human service representatives were asked to attend the listening session, as were Perham Health officials and health care providers.

While the providers agreed the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, needs an overhaul, they said repealing it and replacing it with the American Health Care Act would be a mistake because too many people would become ineligible for health care coverage.

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In Otter Tail County, the number of people who would become uninsured under the new plan is around 2,900, according to county Human Services Director Deb Sjostrom, adding that the people most affected would be the elderly, disabled, mentally ill and children.

Also at risk under the new plan would be public health funding, causing "dire implications" for clients if funding is cut, said Diane Thorson, the county's director of public health.

Obamacare expanded Medicaid to include single adults, but the new plan would phase down federal payments to states to a 50 percent match, which Minnesota likely would be unable to pay. That means the state would have to cut the number of people covered or make significant cuts to Medicaid, which hospitals would have to cover.

Among the benefits of Obamacare are incentives for health care providers to improve quality of care and make cost reductions in health care, which are not in the new plan. Perham Health implemented cost-saving programs, such as Medical Home and Community Paramedics, to reduce costly readmissions or emergency room visits. While larger hospitals see the financial benefits of these programs, smaller hospitals do not, so it costs the hospital money to operate them with little or no reimbursements, according to Perham Health CEO Chuck Hofius. Under the new plan, he added, such programs are likely to be cut because small hospitals cannot afford to operate them.

"We aren't (offering these services) because it's required," he said. "We do it because it's the right thing to do."

At this point, although there are problems with Obamacare, local health care leaders believe repealing it would be like pulling the rug out from under those who became eligible for insurance with it. The group told Franken that improving the present plan was in the best interests of rural patients and the small hospitals that provide their care.

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