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No mental health reform in 2018, Senate majority leader says

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Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Fairview Township (left), and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, speak at a forum of the League of Women Voters at Central Lakes College Thursday. Zach Kayser / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Fairview Township and Sen Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point react during a lighter moment of the League of Women Voters forum at Central Lakes College Thursday. Zach Kayser / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

Minnesotans looking for mental health care reform will have to wait, if Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka's prognosis on the situation proves true.

Gazelka and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, spoke Thursday to the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area inside a classroom at Central Lakes College. The audience of 17 was nearly all seniors, and senior care combined with mental health care formed the bulk of the discussion. When an audience member asked about mental health, Ruud and Gazelka focused on private sector and local efforts to change things rather than policy changes at the state level.

"There's no legislation at this point," Gazelka said.

Gazelka was in conversations with the chairs of the committees where such legislation would come from, he said.

Lawmakers are not in session, but will return Feb. 20 for the 2018 session.

Since the upcoming session is not a budget year, no major legislation of any kind is likely to be put in place, Gazelka said. However, when asked if he saw funding for mental health care as a major issue, Gazelka said he did.

In the past, the budget managed by the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee (which includes mental health services along with welfare and others) had grown to "beastly" proportions, he said. Legislators successfully curbed the HHS budget's growth from 20 to 18 percent, Gazelka said.

"But, if you think about that trajectory all the way year after year, it creates real challenges for the whole rest of our budget—for transportation, for education, for everything else that we have," he said.

Despite the fact mental health seems to be in a holding pattern in St. Paul, there are a variety of local initiatives attempting to make grassroots reform.

Ruud detailed a conversation she had with an Essentia Health official which she said included news the health care provider was changing its policy on the Grace Unit, the behavioral health inpatient unit at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. From now on, only voluntary patients will stay at the Grace Unit, as opposed to involuntary patients. An Essentia Health spokesperson confirmed the change later Thursday.

The shift to voluntary patients will open up beds for local residents and make the hospital staff safer, since patients will want to be in the facility, Ruud said. It may also help alleviate the psychiatrist shortage by making the facility a more attractive place to work, she added.

Gazelka also talked about his visits with the Wadena County Mental Health Task Force, which since 2015 has combined the input of health care providers, law enforcement and other community leaders to try to find mental health solutions.

"I told them, if they can all agree, then I'm going to support whatever they want to do," Gazelka said.

Assisted suicide? Hard pass, Gazelka says

Questions near the mental health discussion also covered suicide, but not quite in the context one would expect.

One woman asked Gazelka about a potential bill legalizing physician-assisted suicide and became noticeably irritated when Gazelka said no.

"Are you passing a doctor-assisted suicide law pretty soon?" she asked.

"No," Gazelka said bluntly.

He started saying that end-of-life care in general should be looked at, but the woman wasn't having it.

"It just costs more to die," she interjected.

Ruud said the Aging and Long Term Policy Committee in the Senate was examining end of life care.

Brainerd lakes area legislators in the Minnesota House of Representatives—Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, and Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin—were invited but did not attend.

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