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Starbuck may lose hospital in effort to save health care in rural area
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Minnesota's smallest hospital is located in Starbuck. It may be transformed into a clinic. (Photo courtesy of Starbuck Hospital)
Residents of the west-central Minnesota town of Starbuck have always considered themselves lucky when it comes to health care. They have their own primary care hospital, which is unusual in a town of only 1,200. But the hospital has lost money for years. And now, officials say they need to merge with a nearby facility to keep health care available in Starbuck.

Starbuck, Minn. — Starbuck is a world-record town. About 20 years ago residents made 100 square feet of lefse; they claim that's a record for the Norwegian staple. But the town has another distinction -- it's home to Minnesota's smallest hospital.

It doesn't take long for hospital CEO Tom Theroult to give a tour. The facility,which is owned by the city, has only 19 beds, and today only two patients are staying here. That makes hospital officials cringe.

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Image New to the board

A recent financial audit shows losses of nearly $3 million over the last 12 years. Tom Theroult says those figures spell out a dark future.

"Whether it's one year from now, or three years from now, it'll be a tremendous struggle to keep health care here in this part of the county if we don't do something, and I would just emphasize more sooner than later," Theroult says.

The solution hospital officials have developed is a merger with the hospital in nearby Glenwood, eight miles to the east. That hospital is struggling too. In fact, because patient numbers are low in Starbuck and Glenwood, the two hospitals aren't able to bring in specialists or new equipment to attract patients.

Theroult says the two hospitals would be much stronger as one. They'd finally be able to afford equipment that local residents have to travel to St. Cloud or Alexandria to find.

"I think we would have enough patient volume to get a CAT scan, and get some of the more modern equipment that is really required now, that we haven't looked at in the past," Theroult says.

In a merger, the Starbuck hospital would become a clinic, and Glenwood would house the main hospital. That talk of change stirs up emotions for people who've relied on the Starbuck hospital over the years.

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Image Looking for a brighter future

"They were fantastic," says Nancy Barsness, who lives near Cyrus, about 13 miles west of Starbuck.

There's a picture of her husband, Ron, hanging in her living room. He died of cancer three years ago. He spent his last few days in the Starbuck Hospital.

"He got wonderful care at the Starbuck Hospital," his wife says. "I was so impressed. They let me stay with him the whole time, they were very good, and I'm very glad we were there." But Barness says the hospital has changed in recent years. Her favorite nurses and doctors have left. She thinks they may have been worried about the hospital's future.

It's likely the Starbuck hospital will become a specialty medical clinic, with oncology, dermatology or even dental care made available. Once that happens, Nancy Barsness say the tax burden on local residents should change too.

Barsness pays $200 in taxes every year to support the Starbuck hospital. She says if it's a clinic, they shouldn't have to pay at all.

"I could see it if we were sitting out in the middle of nowhere, and had to be travelling 50 to 100 miles for medical services because we didn't have any. That isn't the situation, we shouldn't be subsidizing a saturation," she says.

Nancy Barsness feels so strongly about what's happening, that she ran for and was elected to the board of the Starbuck hospital in November. She starts serving after Jan. 1, 2005.

The boards at both hospitals have already voted to pursue the merger. And at this point it looks like residents will continue to pay, whether Starbuck has a hospital or a clinic. But hospital officials say down the line, they hope a clinic in Starbuck will be self-supporting.

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