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State health facilities making due despite strike
By Patty Marsicano
Minnesota Public Radio
October 4, 2001
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This week Minnesota veterans homes and regional treatment centers are operating differently than normal due to the state workers' strike. Most of the people employed at those facilities are members of the two striking unions. Because of the nature of their work, the state has gone to great lengths to fill those jobs during the walkout.

Luke Albers is one of 1,000 members of the National Guard working at state-run veterans home and other health care facilities, while unionized state employees are on strike. Albers is caring for a resident of the vets home in Luverne.
(MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
Minnesota has more than 100 state-run health care facilities that employ more than 6,000 people, and many went on strike this week. Veterans nursing homes, regional treatment centers, and community group homes have made big adjustments to keep caring for the people in their charge. They are using members of the National Guard - sent by Gov. Jesse Ventura. They have hired temporary workers, and are using re-assigned state workers to fill in the holes. The state's health care facilities are still staffed with their regular registered nurses and managers.

Elaine Timmer is the assistant commissioner for State Operated Services. The agency operates facilities for the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, chemically-dependent, and incarcerated sex offenders undergoing treatment - 1,800 people on any given day. Timmer says the National Guard is directly involved with patient care.

"They are attending to daily living skills that these patients need to have done on their behalf - helping with cooking, helping with feeding, helping with grooming - engaging in activities during the day with the clients," says Timmer.

About 1,000 Guard members are on duty at health care facilities - out of a force of 12,000. Some Guard members find themselves in familiar territory, since their regular day jobs are in the health care field - including as nurses.

Most of the 900 or so employees at the state-run veterans homes who are eligible to strike have done so. The almost 600 veterans are being taken care of with the help of the Guard, temporary workers, and re-assigned state workers. Jon Skillingstad, the administrator at the vets home in Fergus Falls, says employees from the departments of Planning, Revenue, and Natural Resources are working at his facility now.

"They are doing maintenance and housekeeping, some are doing laundry, some are involved in assisting in reception activities and in the office," Skillingstad.

Veterans Homes Board chairman Steven Musser says on Monday, the first day of the strike, "there was a time of transition." Now, things are going more smoothly.

"All of the reassigned folks and the Guard are under supervision of existing staff, so all of their activities are being monitored closely. I think we're pretty comfortable at this point that the job is getting done," says Musser.

The state Health Department is doing special inspections at the state's 20 biggest health care facilities - the veterans homes and regional treatment centers. Normally it inspects them once a year. But Health Department compliance official Mike Tripple says officials will do abbreviated checks once a day, at least for the first week of the strike.

"The individuals that were doing care on a day-to-day basis, that knew the residents, were not going to be in the facility. So we felt that with temporary staff coming in, we just wanted to make sure there was this continuity of care and services," he says.

Tripple says there have been some complaints coming from families about the care at state-run facilities this week, but they've been few and not major.

Some of the employees who work in the Health Department's compliance division are also on strike. Tripple says they number about 30 out of a total 200 or so workers. So he says that will affect the speed with which people can file complaints about any health care facility, not just the ones affected by the strike.

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