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Sen. Smith, USDA Under Secretary take a peek at rural health care's future in central Minnesota

The tour provided a chance to show how the facility was working to address health care needs in rural areas.

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Mortenson Construction project manager Jessica Deitner, left, U.S. Senator Tina Smith and USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small react to discussion during a tour of the new Tri-County Health Care facility on Tuesday, Aug. 23, in Wadena.
Contributed photo
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WADENA — The things that can be accomplished with $72 million are impressive.

Look no further than the rural health care center of the future, Tri-County Health Care’s new health center just west of Wadena. Miles of wiring, conduit, gas and oxygen lines. Tons of sheetrock, steel beams and windows that reach to the sky.

The brunt of the cost of this nearly 126,000 square foot facility is covered by a $42 million direct loan from the USDA Rural Development Community Facilities program. USDA representatives and U.S. Senator Tina Smith were pleased to see those dollars at work on a visit to the site on Tuesday, Aug. 23. This new facility is just four months away from completion. Mortenson Construction project manager Jessica Deitner announced an anticipated completion of December 16, 2022.

Fresh paint was on one of the walls of the new patient rooms; other areas were taped off for flooring to be installed; and pavement is expected to be poured this week. The inside of the facility has taken shape to allow for a better understanding of just how things will actually look.

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U.S. Senator Tina Smith, Mortenson project manager Jessica Deitner and Tri-County Health Care President and CEO Joel Beiswenger glance out the large windows of an entry way at the new Tri-County Health Care facility west of Wadena on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

While the funds are being used to build this new facility, it is what the staff plan to do with this place that had the attention of the senator and USDA staff.

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The group wound their way through the facility and at one point snaked into a birthing suite. They surrounded a huge tub that would soon be installed in the bathroom. Another large room. There’s room for staff and the significant other to assist from three sides of the tub while mom prepares for birth or remains to have a water birth if preferred. The main birthing area includes a sling secured to the ceiling, tons of natural light and room for separation between patient/family and staff. TCHC Chief Medical Officer Bobbi Adams shared that while Tri-County Health Care has seen fewer babies born at the facility in recent years, a partial impact from COVID-19, they hope to increase the number of births from around 150 this year, to 250 annually in the coming years.

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Mortenson project manager Jessica Deitner talks about the layout of the birthing suite with U.S. Senator Tina Smith, Rural Development Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small and Tri-County Health Care President and CEO Joel Beiswenger.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

Sen. Smith was keenly interested in the ways in which rural health care could help reduce high maternal mortality rates in rural areas. Sen. Smith is a member of the Senate Health Committee, chairs the Subcommittee on Rural Development and the Senate Rural Health Caucus. Earlier this year, her bill to address America’s high maternal mortality rate in rural areas, the Rural Maternal and Obstetric Modernization of Services (MOMS) Act was signed into law.

Tri-County Health Care, which is becoming Astera Health, has a unique opportunity to assist an issue that most of the more urban parts of the country would never deal with. In the counties of Wadena, Todd and Otter Tail, that issue is providing assistance to the Amish community.

“The Amish are relatively under served,” Adams said. The primary midwife in the area for the Amish died in a car crash, Adams shared. “So Tri-County reached out to them to really open our doors.”

Adams shared that the staff including midwife Dawn Dahlgren-Roemmich have been trying to provide outreach to the Amish community so that they can know the warning signs of a problem in a pregnancy and hopefully get the mother and child help needed at the hospital prior to giving birth at home. While they may not have these families adding to the number of births at the new hospital, the outreach intends to help save lives.

“It’s worked well,” Adams said. “We’ve had a recent number of them coming in for that, so that’s pretty rewarding to see. We’re really trying to reduce the emergency component.”

Sen. Smith was pleased to hear of the prenatal care that was a focus of this facility in working to reduce infant mortality.

“What they are doing with this hospital with huge help from the USDA is being able to create a facility that is really worthy of the need in this part of the state,” Sen. Smith said following the tour.

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“It really shows that when you invest in local leadership, you invest in thriving rural communities,” Under Secretary Torres Small said. “So Rural Development is proud of this $42 million loan that’s going to support this project.”

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The new facility also provides increased technology for better air quality. The extensive use of windows is meant to provide a more healing, relaxing environment. The focus on less in-patient and more outpatient follows the trends of improved procedures.

“It was great to have Under Secretary Torres Small here to see a glimpse of what rural Minnesota has to offer. Increasing health care delivery in rural areas is important for building prosperous and resilient rural communities. The new Astera Health facility in Wadena is exactly the type of thing the federal government should be a partner in. This project wouldn’t be possible without the support of the USDA’s Rural Development office,” said Sen. Smith.

At the conclusion of the tour Tri-County Health Care president and CEO Joel Beiswenger took a moment to bend the ear of the senator and under secretary regarding his experiences with applying for financing. He said the Community Facilities program was one such application that he was told was difficult to complete and in working through it he realized it was an extensive process that likely was too burdensome for some to take on. But it was worth it.

“It’s the best deal, the cheapest money, the longest term,” Beiswenger said. The roughly $42 million loan will be paid over 35 years with an interest rate under 3%. There wasn’t a better offer on the table. He suggested perhaps there may be ways to make it more user friendly.

Beiswenger suggested that what would make this program even better is if they could work with the local banks to pool the money.

“That’s rural development in my mind,” Beiswenger said.

Following the trip to Wadena, the senator, her staff and USDA staff traveled to Menahga to tour the Ten Finns Creamery. There they learned about their specialization in A2 milk production and sustainable farming practices. Owned and operated by Joel and Amanda Hendrickson, their namesake comes from their Finnish ancestry and ten kids who play a big role in the daily care of their cows. Their specialization in A2 milk production produces dairy products for people with milk sensitivities. They currently have whole milk, 2% milk, chocolate milk, and butter available as products. They pride themselves on sustainable farming practices, which include refusing to use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides and planting cover crops to keep carbon in the soil and out of our atmosphere.

Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in the city of Verndale, Minn., but is bent on making it as country as he can until he returns once more to the farm living he enjoys. Also living the dream are his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at mjohnson@agweek.com or 218-640-2312.
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