The state has had a moratorium on adding new hospital beds since the mid-1980s. At the time, hospitals were struggling financially. Since then, the Legislature has granted 20 moratorium exemptions. The most recent was passed just this year for a new hospital in Maple Grove. Now, folks in Cass County want a waiver, too.
Mona Glassmann sits inside a high-tech ambulance in Walker. Glassmann has worked as an emergency responder for about 20 years. Last year, the Walker Ambulance Service responded to more than 800 calls. All of those patients had to be transported to towns in neighboring counties.
Glassmann says it often takes more than an hour just to get to a hospital. She says it takes even longer for ambulance crews to get back to Walker and be ready for the next call.
"If we go to Brainerd, a minimum call is going to take four hours," said Glassmann. "If we go to Bemidji, a minimum call is three hours. That's a long distance. A very long distance."
Walker Ambulance officials estimate that as many as a dozen patients die each year because long distances to hospitals delay critical care.
State Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, has seen that happen first hand. Howes says he was at a public gathering in Hackensack a few years ago, where a woman suffered a heart attack.
"She just fell off the bench of the picnic table and we had to wait, I think it was 50 minutes before an ambulance got there," said Howes. "And it wasn't anyone's fault. It's just that they were all out. She didn't make it. And when you have those situations, that first 30 minutes, one hour, is extremely critical. Now, had we had a hospital in the Walker area, it might be a different story. That lady might still be alive."
Howes has authored a bill seeking an exception to the state's hospital bed moratorium. The plan is to build a 25-bed hospital at the state's Ah-Gwah-Ching psychiatric nursing home near Walker. That facility will be empty by June 2007.
Cass County hopes to acquire the 175-acre site for $1. Howes says most of the buildings are unsuitable for reuse and would likely be torn down. The state has already allocated $4 million to help pay for demolition.
Howes says the proposed $28 million hospital would be built with private dollars. It appears funding for the project would come from the Benedictine Health System of Duluth. The three-phased plan also includes a medical clinic, as well as long term care and assisted living housing for seniors.
The last census showed Cass County is one of the fastest growing regions in the state. The population is expected to double over the next 25 years. Much of the growth is expected to be elderly retirees.
John Warren heads a county task force working to create the medical campus. Warren says Cass County needs to prepare for those demographic changes.
"Also, the population we have here is one of the poorest in Minnesota," Warren said. "Our average per capita income is far, far less than the average for the state of Minnesota. So we're poor, we're old, and we're growing like crazy. We need a hospital."
Warren says the hospital plan also has economic implications for the region. Cass County will lose about 100 jobs when the state shuts down Ah-Gwah-Ching. He says the new hospital campus would eventually create three times that many jobs.
Supporters of the Cass County hospital bed legislation say there has so far been no opposition to the plan. It's been approved in the House and has the support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The bill is still in committee in the Senate.