MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minnesota’s need for rural health care services is growing at exactly the time the number of health care professionals is shrinking.

In six of the largest counties in northwestern Minnesota around Crookston, it’s a crisis.

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“We are approximately the same geographical size of the state of New Jersey,” Northwestern Mental Health Center’s Shauna Reitmeier said. “However, the difference with that is that New Jersey has about 1,200 people per square mile, and we have eight.”

The state health department found many small-town residents drive an hour or more to find health care.

And Sen. Greg Clausen says that directly affects a small town’s economic stability.

“So they have a couple of options,” Clausen said. “Do they move to an area if they have a severe medical condition where they can receive medical assistance, or do they drive?”

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The Senate wants to add more doctors and dentists to a state program, and also forgive 60 percent of student loans for mental health workers, dental therapists and public health nurses – if they move to rural Minnesota for four years.

Medical resident Sarah Eisencheck has $200,000 in academic loans, and the forgiveness program is a powerful incentive.

She trained for two months in Mora, and will move there to practice when she graduates.

“I trained in Mora for those two months, and cared for people who sometimes would hike out of the forest and hitchhike into the clinic to see us to get their blood pressure medications,” Eisencheck said. “The poverty was remarkable.”

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If the bill passes, 200 health care workers could be moving to clinics in rural Minnesota.