Koppelman: Health care costs are continuing to rise, causing deficiencies

Before Congress reconvenes from its August recess next week, some Park Rapids area residents gathered for a health care discussion to figure out how President Obama's plan would affect rural areas.

Ben Koppelman
Ben Koppelman says hospitals are suffering from the current health care system. Some patients can't afford care, but still need the services. (Riham Feshir / Enterprise)

Before Congress reconvenes from its August recess next week, some Park Rapids area residents gathered for a health care discussion to figure out how President Obama's plan would affect rural areas.

"It's a good thing we want to cover everybody," said Ben Koppelman, St. Joseph's Area Health Services president and chief executive officer. "But how we're going to do it is going to be the challenge, especially in rural areas."

He spoke to a group of about 25 at the Park Rapids Area Library Tuesday - an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters, that strongly supports health care coverage for all.

Koppelman addressed the current problem by presenting statistics that show health care costs are continuing to rise; causing deficiencies in the system and slumping the nation's economy.

"Health care costs are growing astronomically," Koppelman said. "It's a big issue; we've got to stop it."


But it doesn't all come down to reducing costs. There are many different aspects of the problem that make health care "so personal," he said.

One problem rural Minnesota is facing is the need to care for the elderly who reside in areas like Park Rapids.

"Seventy-eight million baby boomers will begin to turn 65 in 2011.

"Obviously they're going to need increasing medical care along with the current group we're already kind of not serving," Koppelman said.

Additionally, statistics show that more of the poor and uninsured live in rural areas and at the same time losing access to programs like the General Assistance Medical Care at hospitals like St. Joseph's.

Singles who earn $7,800 a year or less are qualified for the GAMC program.

But since the local hospital no longer accepts it due to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to cut it, those individuals will most likely avoid getting preventive care, which leads to illnesses and more emergency room visits that they can't afford.

"The hospital will lose about $1 million over the next two years because of that decision," Koppelman said.


Another problem rural areas are facing is the shortage of primary care physicians because most doctors decide to specialize and work in urban areas.

There were 55 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents in rural areas in 2005, compared to 72 per 100,000 in the urban areas, Koppelman reported.

The rate that primary care physicians is growing is not fast enough to catch up with the growth of the elderly and vulnerable populations.

Problems that are affecting the entire nation include rising deductibles, co-pays and premiums that employees can't afford due to the fact that wages aren't increasing as fast.

According to Koppelman's statistics, from 1960 to 2008, the population has grown by 1.8 times while health care cost expenditures have grown by 88.9 times.

"The current system is unsustainable," he said. "Our trend is going in the wrong direction; it's going very fast."

He added that commercial premiums for a family of four cost $5,200 in 1997. It's projected to climb to about $25,000 by 2020.

"It's not practical. Something has got to change with that trend. There is no way any of us is going to have insurance going forward," Koppelman said.


What rural America needs

Koppelman suggested the following solutions to problems rural health care is facing:

-Improving quality and cost effectiveness for care;

-Assigning primary care physicians for each individual to help enhance the preventive care process;

-Providing funding for better electronic records for easier tracking of treatments done in other cities and states and also expanding broadband coverage;

-Lowering drug prices for rural hospitals;

-Getting more access to mental health providers;

-Funding for more innovative treatments;


-Allowing people who receive state funding programs like Medicare to get access to national programs as well.

-Equalizing costs across the nation so the same treatments cost the same in every state.

"It's a big issue, it's something that has a far reaching impact on all of us individually, businesses or the communities that we live in," Koppelman said.

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