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WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota braces for tide of out-of-staters

DULUTH, Minn. — On the top floor of a simple two-story brick building near the shore of Lake Superior, the executive director of northern Minnesota’s only abortion clinic flits from room to room, checking on patients, taking phone calls from people seeking appointments and fielding billing questions from those struggling to pay.

In the waiting room of the WE Health Clinic in Duluth, patients from Wisconsin and Texas sit among Minnesotans — the forerunner of an expected surge in out-of-state patients after the Supreme Court struck down the federal right to abortion.

“It’s been very busy,” said Laurie Casey, the executive director. “We try to be as flexible as we can, especially with people moving out of state. A lot of our patients — even if they’re from Minnesota — travel one to three hours to get here. So we try to be as more helpful we can be”.

Even before Roe v. Wade, WE Health Clinic was the closest abortion provider for some people in northern Wisconsin, northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Today, clinic employees are acutely aware of their state’s status as an island for legal abortion in the Upper Midwest. Abortion is now illegal or treated as such in Wisconsin and South Dakota. North Dakota is expected to follow suit in late July, and Iowa’s Republican governor is asking state courts to severely limit the process.

The clinic increased the limit for patients from 16 to 20 on the one day of the week that abortions are usually performed. Its staff tries to schedule abortions on other days when necessary, and may dedicate an additional half or full day each week for abortion services.

“We haven’t exceeded our capacity to serve patients yet. And we’re working on efficiency so we’re ready if we end up with a flood of patients,” said Dr. Judith Johnson, one of three doctors who provide abortions at the clinic.

Johnson said the increased pressure began months before the Supreme Court decision, with inquiries from people in Texas and Oklahoma as those states introduced highly restrictive abortion bans.

The extra patient load at WE Health Clinic includes people who have struggled to get appointments quickly at some clinics in the Minneapolis area, home to five of the state’s seven abortion clinics, following the Supreme Court ruling. The seventh clinic is located in Rochester.

“The number of patients we serve has increased and the places they’re coming from have moved farther,” Johnson said.

And the clinic is not able to help everyone who calls.

Cassidy Thompson, a patient educator and coordinator of the clinic’s volunteer patient escort program, recounted a call from a woman in Oklahoma who was “yelling at me on the phone, saying, ‘Can’t you help me? No other clinic can take me This patient was hoping for a telehealth consultation that would allow her to stay in Oklahoma and still get a medical abortion from the clinic.

However, state law requires patients to have a Minnesota mailing address and be physically present in Minnesota when they speak with a doctor.

“The whole purpose of (my) career is to provide abortion care. And to tell someone that legally we can’t help them with anything, and that they’re stuck with an forced pregnancy … is just a complete removal of power,” Thompson said. “If they were a Minnesota resident, we could abort them, no problem.”

Most of the clinic’s Minnesota patients qualify for low-income assistance to help with the cost of an abortion, but it doesn’t cover the full cost of the procedure. Casey estimated the clinic lost more than $60,000 last year serving Medicaid patients, a shortfall the clinic had to cover through fundraising.

“A lot of doctor’s offices put caps on how many patients can see medical help, but we don’t because we really want to get it to the people who need it the most,” said Paulina Briggs, the clinic’s lab supervisor and patient educator.

But out-of-state patients don’t qualify for Minnesota’s medical assistance program. Nor does the clinic help out-of-state patients with travel expenses. doesn’t have the resources, Casey said. All of this adds to the financial strain on people who travel across state lines for abortion care.

“It’s very sad to think about these people,” Briggs said. “Where they live will determine the kind of care they get. And the people who need services the most will have the hardest time accessing them.”

Briggs said the phones have been “buzzing” with calls from people — including nurses, physician assistants and a lawyer — wanting to volunteer, help or donate to the clinic, which also offers a range of non-abortion services, such as screening of births and breasts. and cervical cancer screenings.

“The biggest challenge right now is just financial stability, making sure we have the financial resources to keep our clinic going,” Casey said. “It’s really sad that when I started here in 1981, we didn’t have as many restrictive laws. And now we’ve just gone backwards.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota braces for tide of out-of-staters Source link WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota braces for tide of out-of-staters

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