Health pioneer honoredHealth administrators from Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin are honoring a woman who spent her career getting medical care for people without insurance.
By: By Joe Cadotte, For the Budgeteer News, Superior Telegram
Health administrators from Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin are honoring a woman who spent her career getting medical care for people without insurance.
When Wende Nelson became executive director of the Lake Superior Community Health Center in 1991, the organization worked out of a house converted into a clinic and had an annual budget of $370,000.
Though the clinic treated hundreds of uninsured people each year, thousands went without care from the clinic because they couldn’t afford it, Nelson said.
“How could you not care?” Nelson remembers. “We’re human beings. These are other human beings in need. If there is anything you can do to help them you have to do it.”
Nelson spent the next 20 years advocating for people without adequate health insurance. The health center now has two locations and an annual budget of almost $7 million, which helps more than 10,000 patients a year.
But that’s still not enough. Nelson says there are more than 23,000 uninsured people in Northeastern Minnesota and Douglas County – and many others who are underinsured. And the impact of this shortfall is felt across an entire community, Nelson said.
“It impacts education. It impacts how kids do in school. If you don’t have health insurance, you go to the E.R. and the hospital loses a lot of money. Insurance rates go up. Absenteeism from work is a big problem. I remember a woman a few years ago. By the time she came to us, she had known she was sick for five years. She had cancer from her nose to her toes. She didn’t make it two months. If she had a pap smear it should have never happened.”
After more than 20 years advocating for the uninsured, Nelson retired after the 2011 Bridge to Health Survey was released May 25. The survey is a collaborative effort between health officials in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin who track the number of uninsured people.
The survey shows the number of uninsured has been increasing since it began in 1995, and by 2010, 8.8 percent of the region didn’t have insurance. The survey helps the Lake Superior Community Health Center write grants and improve services,” Nelson said.
“We are probably the most successful of all the federal poverty programs and probably the longest-lived because we deliver,” Nelson said.
As Nelson retired, former St. Paul West Side Community Health Services Director Mavis Brehm took the reins as director of the Lake Superior Community Health Center. Brehm says she feels like she has big shoes to fill.
“Wende has such a wonderful legacy within the community. There could be worse acts to follow. I’m excited to be part of the community and continue to meet the need,” Brehm said
Nelson says Brehm is qualified for the job.
“Mavis has a great background in areas that may be the future for the health center,” Nelson said. “She’s done school based clinics. She’s done homeless clinics. She has skills to take it to the next level.”
Brehm says the next level is to make more partnerships between the community clinic and other health systems. She wants to expand the clinic by adding more services such as mental health and education.
Brehm also will continue advocating for funds to increase staff and clinic hours.