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Minnesota House, governor support $14 million to train rural doctors

"It's always difficult to recruit based on their impressions of what it's like living beyond the Twin Cities or big cities," said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, seen here in this file photo. "So, we need to do all we can to have those folks that are ready and willing to come out where they'll find that living is great." Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—The Minnesota House and Gov. Mark Dayton want to provide the University of Minnesota with an additional $14 million over two years to help train physicians to work in greater Minnesota.

The state funding would replace a portion of the revenue generated by nonprofit insurance provider UCare.

The Minneapolis-based UCare donated money for a decade to the university's family medicine department to support residency programs for primary care doctors who plan to practice in rural Minnesota communities.

The state Legislature barred UCare from selling Medicaid patients insurance starting in 2016. That decision led to lost profits and loss of funding for the family medicine department.

Without new state funding, UCare board Chairman Dr. Macaran Baird said existing funds will last until the end of June.

"I literally don't know what would happen if we're not funded, but the risk is that several programs would close," Baird said. "It wouldn't happen in a week, or a month, maybe a couple years, but that would all dwindle away because we wouldn't have the money to fund these programs. ... It would undermine one of the fundamentally wonderful things about the University of Minnesota medical school."

Despite the governor and House support to fund the university's full program request, the Senate higher education funding bill includes no additional spending to replace UCare dollars.

Rep. Bud Nornes, the Republican chairman of the House higher education committee, said he hopes to see funding on the bill following conference committee negotiations.

"There's a big need out there for physicians that will serve the rural areas," said Nornes, of Fergus Falls. "It's always difficult to recruit based on their impressions of what it's like living beyond the Twin Cities or big cities. So, we need to do all we can to have those folks that are ready and willing to come out where they'll find that living is great."

The Minnesota Health Department designated swaths of counties in northern, central and southwestern Minnesota primary care professionals shortage areas.

Dr. Sufian Zayed graduated from the university's residency program about six months ago.

He said the shortage of doctors in smaller communities is noticeable at the Mayo Clinic in Mankato, where he practices family medicine.

Some of his patients from more rural communities face up to an hour-long drive to seek care.

"As much as I love serving people, working with them and helping them, I feel sometimes that the shortage is definitely impacting that whole process," he said. "We don't have physicians out there working in these areas and supporting populations out there."

Zayed finished his residency shortly after the department lost UCare funding.

He said that although the program was a good fit for him, he doubts he would have experienced the same benefits and opportunities if funding was cut.

Baird shares his worries.

The number of graduates from the program has declined by about 10 percent over five years.

Without additional funding, Baird said he worries those numbers, and the number of Minnesota's primary care doctors, will continue to shrink.

Greater Minnesota communities could bear the brunt of health care access struggles stemming from the primary care shortage.

An increasingly older population in those areas means fewer people in the workforce and increased health care needs.

"The crux is coming because the baby boomer generation is retiring now," he said. "If we don't have these graduates, we won't have people to replace them. So, people in these rural areas will not be able to find a physician."

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