Health care at the forefront of Michigan’s 1st District race between Bergman and Lorinser

When Kinross EMS is called to handle an emergency, EMS Director Renee Gray hears a shrill alarm and a voice over a loudspeaker.

A woman nearby is showing symptoms of a stroke. But with two of Grey’s three emergency teams on other assignments, she has no choice but to send in her last team.

If she gets another call, Gray will have to answer it herself or contact an agency further away to come to the rescue.

Cases like this pop up in the 1st Congressional District, which includes all of UP and counties north of Houghton Lake. With each new year, Gray said it gets harder to run his EMS service.

“Regular Type 3 ambulances went from $110,000 to $280,000. That’s not even the equipment that goes into it,” Gray said. “And now we’re trying to make sure we hire enough staff to keep everything rolling.”

But it’s not just the ambulances.

The sheer physical distance between people and the resources they need can sometimes lead to life-or-death situations.

Whether you’re talking about emergency medicine, pediatrics or mental health, officials agree that Northern Michigan needs to do better.

“This is an age-old problem,” said John Barnas, executive director of the Michigan Center for Rural Health. “There continues to be recognition that there are problems in rural America [and] rural Michigan that needs to be addressed.”

Challengers for Michigan’s first congressional district list health care as a priority.

This year, Republican incumbent Jack Bergman is being challenged by Dr. Bob Lorinzer of Marquette. Libertarian Andrew Gale and the Working Class Party’s Liz Hakola are also in the race.

Lorinser, a Democrat, hopes to flip the district by marketing himself to voters as a doctor, not a politician.

But it’s no secret that the district is staunchly Republican.

“Democrats have a long way to go to get there,” said Scott LaDeur, a political science professor at North Central Community College in Petoskey.

He said the redistricting process only increased the Republican advantage. It added five counties in the South that also recently tilted Republican and dropped Manistee and part of Mason County.

Bergman, a Marine Corps veteran and former airline pilot, has held his seat since 2017. The last Democrat to represent Northern Michigan was Bart Stupak in 2010.

But Lorinser said he has first-hand experience dealing with the pitfalls of rural health care while covering weekend shifts at small UP hospitals.

“I still remember the car accident with six patients that went in. It was me and two nurses. I’ve never been more scared myself,” he said. “You know, the accident happened there. And if it wasn’t for our efforts at that smaller hospital, I don’t think they would have made it through EMS to a larger hospital.”

Lorinser said he wants to see “a comprehensive, comprehensive plan for rural health care in the United States.” He said he would work to set federal standards for things like ambulance response times and the number of doctors per community.

He would also advocate for increased funding for services and the creation of a pool of professionals to staff rural communities.

His campaign website said he would also support a universal health care plan and expanding Medicare and Medicaid.

Republican Bergman has a different approach: Make access easier by cutting federal red tape.

“I believe the role of the federal government in this particular case is to provide some level, some level of funding,” Bergman said. “But also to stay out of Michigan’s way.”

He said access to health care in rural areas could be improved by focusing on other things like broadband so residents could use telehealth services.

“People are more concerned about being able to fill up their car with gas to get to their health care provider than they are about health care itself,” he said.

Bergman highlighted her efforts in Congress to protect people with pre-existing conditions — but she also voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017.

Political science professor Scott LaDeur said that while access to health care is important to voters in District 1, that doesn’t mean people will vote across party lines for it.

“If I’m insured and I live in Petoskey or Traverse City or Sault Ste. Marie and I have quick access to a hospital and urgent care facilities, then it’s not that big of a deal,” LaDeur said. “If, on the other hand, you live on the outskirts of Cheboygan, it looks a lot different for you.”

As for solving the problem, Dr. Tressa Gardner, director of emergency services at McLaren Health System, said it comes down to resources.

“People go north for a reason; they like the rural setting. But when you’re in a rural environment, it comes with some limitations,” she said.

For frontline workers like Renee Gray, it’s hard to look to the federal government as a support system when facilities like hers struggle every day.

“I really hope some of our new congressmen can help us get some [solutions],” she said. “Because if we don’t, the fabric of EMS in the nation will collapse. I have no doubt about it. It’s already slowly doing so.”

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