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House and Senate hopefuls tackle senior health care issues

(From right) House and Senate candidates Lisa Bayley, Matt Schmit, Barb Haley and Mike Goggin sat on a forum at St. Crispin Living Community Thursday, Sept. 29, to answer questions relating to senior health care. (photo by Maureen McMullen)

Nursing facility infrastructure, senior care staff shortages and access to telemedicine — the use of telecommunication to provide health care — were among the topics House and Senate candidates discussed Thursday, Sept. 29, during a public forum on senior health care at St. Crispin Living Community Villa.

House candidates Lisa Bayley (D-Red Wing) and Barb Haley (R-Red Wing) joined Senate candidates Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) and Matt Schmit (D-Red Wing) to answer questions from Long-term Care Imperative, a legislative collaboration between Care Providers of Minnesota and Aging Services of Minnesota that organized the event.

Each candidate described their personal connection to senior health care, an issue by which Bayley said "no one is untouched."

She spoke of her role as an attorney elder law in Dakota and Goodhue Counties, which she said gave her direct insight into the breadth of difficulties faced by her clients, long-term care residents, social workers and facilities.

Schmit worked at St. Crispin in college, an experience he said bolstered an existing interest in the medical field. He later became a nurse's assistant and worked in memory care at the hospital in St. Cloud, which he said was an "eye-opening" experience that taught him "what works and what doesn't."

Barb Haley said her peers in what she calls the "sandwich generation" — an age group raising kids while taking care of aging parents — have discussed a variety of difficult and expensive decisions they face regarding their parents' health care.

She also recalled her appreciation for a nursing facility that allowed her parents to be together in long-term care.

Although Goggin said his father was fortunate to not require long-term care, he described witnessing "gaps" in criteria for assisted living as his family have navigated arrangements for his father-in-law. He hopes to take action to fill those gaps, which he said puts "a lot of strain on families."

Priorities

In her answer to a question about changes in policy candidates hope to implement, Haley outlined three priorities: spreading awareness of the "staggering" costs of long-term health care, removing barriers and mandates that hinder access to affordable long-term coverage insurance, and reevaluating legislations that failed to pass.

"I think we need to tee right up again and move to get creative with funding models," she said. "The tsunami of aging people is coming our way, and we won't be able to fund all this care unless we get ahead of it."

Goggin said he would encourage families to work with healthcare providers and facilities to evaluate the issues each individual faces.

"That starts with in-home healthcare options rather than just jumping in long-term care," he said. "That's where they live, that's where they're most comfortable. That way we could help reduce the costs as well as maintaining health care."

Bayley said she would focus on educating Minnesotans to approach long-term care plans the way they approach college: early on.

"We don't really think about (long-term care)," she said. "It's something that most of us are going to have to do at some point, and we need to start thinking about it earlier than later."

Schmit said he hopes to balance consideration for local input with state and federal policies.

"I think it's always important for us to listen to patients and their families and those providing the care at the local level, but also making sure the policy at the state level matches that," he said. "The more we can align the interest of the local level, the state and the federal so that these policies and practices support one another."

Staffing Shortages

Candidates at the forum were asked about policies they would implement to help fill the nearly 2,500 vacant positions at care facilities throughout Minnesota they found during a legislative survey.

Schmit said a budget turn-around from four years ago yielded more surplus rather than deficits — a trend he said would be especially helpful to southeastern Minnesota, an area that struggles to clinch its workforce.

"That gives up opportunity to put some additional resources behind The 5% Campaign to help facilities like (St. Crispin) maintain their workforce and attract new employees to fill vacancies," he said.

Despite significant wage increases for senior care employees, Haley said she sees a need for additional incentives to pursue jobs in that line of work.

She spoke in favor of programs like scholarship incentives for high school and college students with an interest in assisted care careers like nursing.

Goggin agreed that wages for assisted care workers in Minnesota fail to meet the state's demand for workers in that field. He suggested incentives such as a tuition reimbursement tax credit for students. He also expressed support for programs like Every Hand Joined, which has introduced students in rural communities to careers in assisted care.

"It is important to make sure we take care of seniors who have worked their lives to provide for us and deserve to have that type of respect," he said.

Bayley echoed some of the previous speakers' suggestions for better wages and workforce incentives. She also recommended weeding out factors that might drive up expenses by streamlining general costs, streamlining regulations and eliminating duplicate regulations.

"It's a complicated issue, but it's a question of priorities," she said.

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