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Franken pushes bills to help rural health

U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota listens to health experts give suggestions Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, about how to improve rural health care. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL — Rural Minnesota needs medical healing, and U.S. Sen. Al Franken says he has part of a cure.

The Minnesota Democrat said Monday that he is pushing three bills to help bring better medical services to rural areas:

•One would provide more ways to get to health-care services, including increasing payments to those who provide transportation. Also, increased broadband high-speed Internet funding would come to rural areas to connect rural residents to city doctors.

•A second piece of legislation is designed to attract more doctors and other medical professionals to rural areas, especially by trying to get doctors to move back to where they grew up in rural areas. The legislation also would help make it financially more attractive and would provide ongoing training closer to home instead of only in big cities. The bill would especially target mental health professionals, who are in very short supply.

•A third measure would help increase payments to rural health professionals and hospitals, which have lagged behind those in big cities.

Rural areas should not be left behind in medical care, Franken said.

"I don't think it should be part of living in beautiful rural Minnesota that you have worse health-care quality," he said.

Expanded technology

One key is to encourage broadband expansion in rural areas, Franken said. Telemedicine can use video and other technology for a doctor or other professional to see a patient across the state.

"We live in a profoundly different time with broadband than we did 10 years ago," Franken said. "We have to build on our ability to do telemedicine."

The need to use technology is illustrated by figures from the Minnesota Rural Health Association. It reports that for every doctor in the Twin Cities, there are 300 people. In greater Minnesota cities, that figure is close to 700. But in deep rural Minnesota, there is one doctor for every 2,000 residents.

"We can't do this fast enough, as far as I'm concerned," Franken said of expanding broadband.

The move could help mental health services, he said, which are critically needed in rural Minnesota.

During Franken's 30 rural medicine meetings around the state in the last year and a half, many centered on the lack of mental health help. In fact, he said, the entire Bemidji meeting ended up about mental health.

Franken said he hoped to work with other senators of both parties on the issue as co-chairman of the Senate Rural Health Caucus.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.