Is there a doctor in the House? There are two in the Senate

The Minnesota Senate Chamber.
The Minnesota Senate has its first two doctors since 1991, and they hope to dive right into work given the legislative session's spotlight on health care.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It's been a quarter century since the Minnesota Senate last had a doctor among its members.

This week, two came aboard — one Democrat and one Republican — and their real-world experience could come in handy with health care shaping up as a dominant issue before the Legislature.

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, one of two doctors
Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, is one of two doctors now serving in the Minnesota Senate.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Republican Scott Jensen, 62, comes from a conservative district in Chaska and is a family practice doctor with his own clinic. DFLer Matt Klein, 49, lives in Mendota Heights and works at a big city hospital. Both won open Senate seats last fall.

Freshmen lawmakers often hang back in the early going to get a better sense of how the Legislature works, but these two say they'll dive right in given the session's spotlight on health care.

Sen. Matt Klein is an HCMC doctor.
Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, is a doctor at Hennepin County Medical Center
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Jensen will be vice chair of a key Senate health policy committee.

"I absolutely expect to have a seat at the table," he said.

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Jensen said he's witnessed the negative consequences on his patients stemming from state and federal laws.

A year ago, he published a book with 33 stories about patients he's taken care of in his 33-year career. It stresses the importance of doctor-patient connections.

"As a physician, I don't think I work for Blue Cross or Medicare or Medical Assistance. I work for the patients," Jensen said. "If I'm not doing a good enough job, I would hope they would fire me."

Issues of doctor choice and access are likely to be key subjects of debate at the Capitol this year, along with the cost of health insurance.

The clinic Jensen founded is in Watertown, and he said he'll still see patients on a daily basis before coming into St. Paul and on weekends.

Medicine runs in the family for Jensen. His daughter is an anesthesiologist at Hennepin County Medical Center. That's where Matt Klein makes his rounds. He sees patients who are being admitted for acute illnesses.

Klein is also on committees that deal with health care issues. He says he doesn't profess to be an expert in insurance policy, but he knows medicine.

"What other people maybe know out of facts or briefing papers, I know from my night shifts three times a week in a very personal way," he said. "I think I'll bring some passion to the discussion."

Klein works at the state's biggest safety net hospital. That experience at HCMC exposed him to patients who are as worried about their medical bills as they are about their condition, he said.

He noted the story of a drywaller who had put off care despite coughing up blood for months. Then a chest X-ray revealed a large tumor.

"The first thing he asked me was whether he could get back to work on Friday because he couldn't pay for the chest X-ray I had ordered," Klein recalled, "and he couldn't pay for the hospital stay that he had incurred and he certainly couldn't pay for any treatments that I was planning to order."

That stuck with Klein as a vivid example of why expansions of Medicaid and access to affordable insurance are important, he said.

But that's not to say he doesn't see a need for change.

Klein said he wants to look at incentives to hospitals and clinics inherent in the health system that emphasize the number of people seen over whether they get better.

Like Jensen, Klein says he'll keep working at the hospital a couple nights a week, in part because it keeps him grounded and he has five children to put through college.

There are nurses who are in the Legislature. There have been dentists and pharmacists, too. There's a currently a practicing chiropractor in the Senate: Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

The last doctor to serve in the Senate was a psychiatrist who left office in 1991. The House saw its last doctor depart in 2003. Everyone called him "Doc."

As for Klein, he says he prefers "Matt."

Jensen and Klein say they've already met several times and plan to get together weekly during the session to chew over ideas.

"If we can build bridges and really listen to each other and hear the value in the other's ideas, then hopefully we can serve as some sort of a model for the Republicans and Democrats to make sure they're listening to one another," Jensen said. "Not all this stuff is partisan."

Said Klein: "The fact that both of us are both in the Senate at the same time is fortuitous and hopefully we can find some common ground."