Election 2022: How accessible healthcare can drive elections in rural northern Michigan
Editor’s note: This week, IPR News is looking at some of the major issues voters will consider when they head to the polls next week, and highlighting races where that issue has come up. Election Day is Nov. 8.
When Kinross EMS gets called to deal with an emergency, EMS director Renee Gray hears a piercing alarm and voice over a speaker.
A woman nearby is showing symptoms of a stroke. But since two of Gray’s three EMS crews are on other assignments. She has no choice but to send her last crew.
If another call comes in Gray will have to respond herself or contact an agency farther away to come to the rescue.
Instances like this pop up throughout Michigan's 1st congressional district which includes the entire Upper Peninsula and the counties north of Houghton Lake.
With every new year, Gray said it gets harder to run her EMS service.
“Regular type 3 ambulance ambulances have gone from $110,000 to $280,000. That's not even the equipment to go in it,” Gray said. “And now we are trying to make sure we hire enough staff to keep everything rotating.”
But it’s not just ambulance service.
The sheer physical distance between people and the resources they need can sometimes lead to life-or-death situations.
Whether you’re talking about EMS, pediatrics, or mental health, officials agree northern Michigan needs to be doing better.
“It’s an age-old problem,” said John Barnas, executive director of the Michigan Center for Rural Health. “There continues to be recognition that there are issues in rural America [and] rural Michigan that have to be addressed.”
The contenders for Michigan’s 1st congressional district list healthcare as a priority.
This year, Republican incumbent Jack Bergman is challenged by Dr. Bob Lorinser from Marquette. Libertarian Andrew Gale and Liz Hakola of the Working Class Party are also in the running.
Lorinser, a Democrat, hopes to flip the district by marketing himself to voters as someone who is a doctor before he's a politician.
But it’s no secret that the district is solidly Republican.
“The Democrats have got a long way to go to make this close,” said Scott Ladeur, a political science professor at North Central Community College in Petoskey.
He said the redistricting process has only increased the Republican edge. It added five counties to the south that have also recently leaned Republican and dropped Manistee and a portion of Mason County.
Bergman, a Marine veteran and former airline pilot, has held his seat since 2017. The last Democrat to represent Northern Michigan was Bart Stupak in 2010.
But Lorinser said he has firsthand experience dealing with rural health pitfalls while covering weekend shifts at small U.P. hospitals.
“I still remember the car accident with six patients coming on in. It was myself and two nurses. I have never been more scared,” he said. “But the accident happened there. And if it wasn't for our efforts at that smaller hospital, I don't think they would have made it by EMS to a larger hospital.”
Lorinser said he wants to see a “global, comprehensive plan for rural health care in the United States.” He said he would work to set federal standards for things like ambulance response time and the number of doctors per community.
He’d also advocate for increased funding for services and to create a pipeline of professionals to staff rural communities.
His campaign website said he’d also support a universal healthcare plan and expansions to Medicare and Medicaid.
Bergman, the Republican, has a different approach: Make access easier by limiting federal bureaucracy.
“I believe the role of the federal government, in this particular case, is to provide some level of funding,” Bergman said, “but also to kind of stay out of the way of Michigan.”
He said access to rural health care can be improved by focusing on other things like broadband internet in order for residents to use telehealth services.
“People are more concerned about being able to fill up their car with gas to get to their health care provider than they are about healthcare itself,” he said.
Bergman highlighted his efforts in Congress to protect people with pre-existing conditions — but he also voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017.
CONVINCING THE ELECTORATE
LaDeur, the political science professor, said while healthcare access is important to voters in District 1, that doesn’t mean people will vote outside their party lines for it.
“If I'm insured and live in Petoskey or Traverse City or Sault Sainte Marie and I have access quickly to a hospital and urgent care facilities, then this isn't such a big deal,” LaDeur said “If on the other hand, you're living on the outskirts of Cheboygan, it looks a lot different to you.”
When it comes to fixing the problem, Tressa Gardner director of Emergency services at McLaren Health System, said it comes down to resources.
“People go up north for a reason; they like the rural setting," she said. "But when you are in the rural setting, it does come with some limitations."
Meanwhile, for frontline workers like Renee Gray, it's hard to look to the federal government as a support system when facilities like hers struggle every day.
“I'm really hoping that some of our new congressmen can help us get some [solutions],” she said. “Because if we don't, the EMS structure in the nation is going to collapse. I have no doubt. It's doing it slowly already.”