Updated: 10/23/2013 7:36 AM
Created: 10/22/2013 6:21 PM KSTP.com
By: Naomi Pescovitz
The Affordable Care Act will send millions of new patients into America's health care system. Faced with that challenge, Minnesota's hospitals and clinics say they are preparing now.
For the final part of our 5 EYEWITNESS News series "ER Emergency," we explored the local plans to keep our state's health care system in tact.
Sixty-two and homeless, Larry Townsend has found shelter in a variety of places over the years. At times, he has even made the emergency department his home for the night, just because he had no place else to go.
"You are alone, secondly you are wondering, how soon are they going to kick you out," Townsend said.
Townsend visits the emergency department at Hennepin County Medical Center several times a year.
"Nowadays more than ever," Townsend said.
With a bike as transportation, Townsend says it is easier than seeing his regular doctor.
"Because it's closer, it's closer," Townsend said.
HCMC wants to bring primary care closer. Since 2010, they have opened four new clinics in neighborhoods and other areas surrounding downtown (Whittier, Brooklyn Park, The Clinic at Walmart in Bloomington and The St. Anthony Village Clinic).
"We are expanding clinics fast. We are going out in the community as well as in the city. We are trying to increase access. We are making huge efforts to try to make a healthier population," said Dr. William Heegaard, Assistant Chief of Emergency Medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center.
There is another solution at HCMC. Over the summer, the hospital got a national award for its Coordinated Care Center. The clinic was designed to help patients with complex problems avoid the hospital and the ER.
In the last year, emergency room visits for patients at the clinic dropped 24 percent. Inpatient stays are down 29 percent.
Heegaard says there is also a daily push inside the emergency department to be more efficient.
"We're going to be doing it multiple ways. It doesn't matter if Obamacare goes crazy and we have lots of people or if we have a bridge collapse or whatever. The emergency departments in the state of Minnesota are going to be ready, we'll adapt, we'll provide great disaster management, great care," Heegaard said.
The West Metro is adapting too.
Last month, Fairview Southdale broke ground on its new emergency center in Edina. When it opens, it will be four times the size of the current emergency department and prepared to handle 70,000 visits a year.
"The cranes and construction equipment is out in front of the hospital now," said Dr. Brent Asplin, President of Fairview Medical Group and Chief Clinical Officer.
Asplin heads Fairview's 44 primary care clinics and is expecting more patients as the Affordable Care Act unfolds.
"It's pretty clear that with the insurance exchanges, there will be people who previously did not have insurance who now have an ability to pay for care that they didn't have before, and they will have pent up demand and they will be wanting to access our clinics," Asplin said.
Fairview is hoping to meet that demand with same day appointments for patients. They are even offering virtual care through a website called Zipnosis. Fairview also has a web-based system called MyHealth so people can book their own visits with a doctor.
"The Affordable Care Act and the insurance exchanges in particular are going to be a game changer for the market. None of us has a crystal ball, we don't know exactly how it's going to play out, but we really do think that this is going to give patients more options," Asplin said.
Townsend hopes any new options involve convenience, transportation and something else.
"In my opinion, just from me, give everybody a chance," Townsend said.
Retail clinics are also expanding their services in preparation for the Affordable Care Act. Some Walgreens locations are offering care for chronic health problems like diabetes and asthma. CVS plans to open 200 MinuteClincs by the end of the year.
Two have opened in Minnesota this year: one is in St. Cloud, the other is in Burnsville.