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Coleman listens at hospital

While Sen. Norm Coleman did most of the talking during a stop Nov. 30 at Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary School, he did most of the listening when he arrived later that day at Tri-County Hospital in Wadena.

Tri-County Hospital Administrator Dennis Miley welcomed Coleman and praised him for his support of Critical Access Hospital legislation, which guarantees reimbursement to rural hospitals on behalf of Medicare patients regardless of that patient's plan provider.

"The Critical Access Hospital legislation is very important to us," Miley told Coleman, noting the legislation is up for renewal and urging its passage, adding, "We'd all be concerned if there was a lot of tinkering."

Coleman agreed CAH legislation is "a basic obligation" and "an underpinning of the system." He said he understood it is a "life or death issue for rural health care."

"The quality of health care shouldn't depend on where you get hurt, where you get sick," Coleman said.

Coleman listened to TCH staff talk about the successful telemedicine program here, and the constant shortage of nurses and doctors in the field.

Miley referred to a "looming nursing shortage."

"The average age for nursing in Minnesota is 48 years old," he told Coleman. "That's exactly what we're at here [at Tri-County]: 48 years old."

And it's not just nurses. Dr. Shaneen Schmidt told Coleman it's difficult for a doctor to come to a small community like Wadena, where the pay isn't as lucrative as other possible practices, because of the huge debt load young doctors face after college. She said the average debt of a medical student is now $120,000 to $150,000.

"And that's just medical school," Schmidt said, "not the four-year school before that."

She said there's a lot of pressure to make money right away to pay down that debt.

"People aren't going to go to rural communities when they have that kind of debt on their shoulders," Schmidt said.

Wayne Wolden, representing Minnesota State Community and Technical College -- Wadena, said even two-year nursing students are incurring debt of $15,000. On the other side of the ledger, Wolden said, aid to colleges to buy equipment necessary to train nurses has also been slashed.

Coleman said he understood the issues.

"When we visit these rural hospitals, the quality of care is outstanding," he said. "I mean, it's really outstanding. But people are worried about the future."

Coleman praised TCH for blazing a trail with telemedicine. Not only does the hospital practice the long-distance healthcare but it also acts as a model and teaches the skill to other hospitals.

TCH Director of Patient Care Services Maureen Ideker talked to Coleman about the technology backbone and expertise needed to implement a successful telemedicine program. Coleman later received a demonstration of the program's benefits from Ideker and Robin Klemek, outreach services manager at Tri-County Hospital.

Coleman urged hospital staff to come up with specific recommendations and bring them to his staff.