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State legislators address rural health care at Duluth conference

State legislators joined in Duluth Monday to discuss health care policy affecting greater Minnesota while fielding questions from a moderator and audience-generated polls.

The annual Minnesota Rural Health Conference hosted the forum of six legislative leaders who either chair or minority-lead a Health and Human Services committee, including Reps. Matt Dean, Joe Schomacker, Erin Murphy and Tina Liebling, as well as Sens. Michelle Benson and Jim Abeler.

Panelists discussed how Minnesota can respond to uncertainty surrounding federal health care reform as U.S. Senators negotiate the House-passed American Health Care Act. Rep. Benson said lawmakers, including herself, must continue to demand Congress provide fair treatment to Minnesota.

"Congress needs to be made strongly aware that Minnesota is unique, so that they first try to be equitable in their treatment," Benson said. "Minnesota gets reimbursed at almost a lower rate than almost any other state in the nation because we are perceived as a rich state."

Rep. Liebling suggested the MinnesotaCare Buy-In, an idea Gov. Mark Dayton proposed at the beginning of this year's state legislative session that faced opposition from Republicans and some hospital groups. MinnesotaCare insures more than 100,000 Minnesotans, but Liebling said a "buy-in" could allow residents the opportunity to choose a public-based plan with a wider network.

"We do have these kinds of options that we can do in Minnesota if we are willing to do it," Liebling said, "but it does involve making the HMOs unhappy."

In response to a question asking what lawmakers can do to ensure that rural-based training provides more rural health care professionals, Rep. Dean emphasized the importance of keeping residency slots adequately funded and maintaining the Rural Physician Associate Program.

Similar medical issues exist across the state which Rep. Murphy said demands extending existing resources, such as workforce, as far as possible into rural communities.

"Before us there are real issues that are not limited to geography of the state of Minnesota, issues of opioid and aging and independence," she said. "Our responses to them are going to be different depending on where we live because of the distance between care delivery, and that, to me, requires more collaboration."

The two-day conference will conclude today at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.