U.S. Sen. Al Franken is taking on rural health care in his second term.
The Minnesota Democrat is co-chairman of the Senate Rural Health Caucus and has traveled the state discussing the topic.
“The conversations were vivid and personal, but also immensely practical,” Franken told the National Rural Health Association on Wednesday. “What became clear is that access to care, or lack thereof, was the top issue for folks in my state.”
Franken told the association about what he and his staff members discovered in their tour of the state.
“The types of problems affecting people’s ability to access care are varied,” he said. “Whether services are available, whether they are affordable, whether they have reliable Internet access and how far away they are all make a difference in determining whether someone in a rural area can access the care they need.”
One Melrose resident said that “the patchwork of transportation systems” makes it difficult for rural residents to get to health-care providers and leads some people to skipping care all together.
A recent Minnesota high-speed Internet report fits right in with Franken’s discoveries. It says that remote medical care is one of the needs the Internet can fulfil.
For instance, a rural Minnesotan may not be able to travel to a big city to see a doctor, but can consult with one via a video connection. And a doctor far away can supervise a local health-care provider conducting a procedure.
However, the Internet report said, too few communities have broadband fast enough to handle many of those medical needs.
Another rural issue Franken discussed was the difficulty getting health-care providers into smaller communities.
“For example, in Fergus Falls, one participant told me they had a posting for a licensed practical nurse that was out for a month,” Franken said. “Not only were there no applicants, not a single person reached out for more information.”
Mental health and substance abuse professional are in especially short supply, the senator added. Emergency rooms often are the main way rural Minnesotans get help in those areas.
“This, of course, is both inefficient and unacceptable,” Franken said.
Tax, transportation the biggies
Legislative sessions are tough to predict, but there is little doubt that the 2016 version that begins March 8 will feature debates about transportation and tax cuts.
In fact, Assistant House Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, predicts that if those two issues bog down, “then everything else drags to a halt.”
There is widespread agreement that transportation needs more money, but disagreement about how to get there.
As for tax cuts, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will go along with some targeted tax cuts, but it does not appear he will go as far as Republicans want in chopping taxes.
This year’s session will be a short one, starting March 8 and ending no later than May 23. There will be debate about a public works bill and lots of other issues, including tweaks to a budget passed last year, but Kresha advises to keep eyes on taxes and transportation to see what may happen in other areas.
Vekich fills in again
The go-to man for governors of both major political parties is back in the Minnesota Lottery helm.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has named Michael Vekich interim Minnesota Lottery executive director, filling the spot Ed Van Petten vacated in December. He left when allegations surfaced that his administration violated state travel policy, including Van Petten renting his own timeshare property to the state.
Vekich stepped in to run the lottery a dozen years ago after the suicide of then-director George Andersen. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
He is chairman of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system Board of Trustees and over the years had led a variety of task forces.
‘Fly me to Japan’
Minnesota business leaders say they are concerned that Delta Airlines will end the state’s only direct flight to Japan.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation say Minnesota’s top 25 businesses booked 10,000 flights to Tokyo in 2015.
Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken received no promises that Delta would be allowed to keep its flight when they met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
“We stressed Delta’s great importance to Minnesota and the urgent necessity that Delta be treated fairly in any new agreement with the Japanese government,” Dayton said. “The secretary gave us no assurances, but I believe our conversation today emphasized Delta’s great importance to the state of Minnesota.”
Unemployed number grows
The number of unemployed Iron Rangers is growing when state officials add in those who are not miners.
Gov. Mark Dayton in November said about 600 miners would run out of unemployment benefits by the time lawmakers start their 2016 session on March 8. He wanted to call a special legislative session to extend the benefits another 26 weeks, but failed negotiations with House Republicans ended his hope on Tuesday.
The new number of miners who will exhaust unemployment checks fell to 450 in the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s newest estimates. However, the state agency now thinks benefits to about 2,200 others on the Iron Range will end by the start of session.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, promises to take up the unemployment extension issue in the first week of session.