US: A Minnesota abortion facility prepares for an influx of tourists

DULUTH: On the top floor of a modest two-story brick building close to Lake Superior, the executive director of northern Minnesota’s only abortion clinic flits from room to room checking in patients, answering phone calls from people looking for appointments, and dealing with billing issues from those having financial difficulties. Many of our patients drive one to three hours each way, even if they are from Minnesota. Before Roe v. Wade was overturned, the WE Health Clinic was the closest abortion facility for some people in northern Wisconsin, northern Minnesota, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Today, the clinic’s staff is acutely aware of their state’s status as an island for legal abortion in the Upper Midwest. Abortion is now illegal or treated as such in Wisconsin and South Dakota. North Dakota is expected to follow in late July. And we are working on efficiencies so that we’re ready if we do end up with a flood of patients,” said Dr. Judith Johnson, one of three doctors providing abortions at the clinic. Johnson said the increased pressure began months before the Supreme Court decision, with inquiries from people in Texas and Oklahoma as those states introduced highly restrictive abortion bans. The extra patient load at WE Health Clinic includes people who have struggled to get speedy appointments at some Minneapolis-area clinics, where five of the state’s seven abortion clinics are located, following the Supreme Court’s decision. The seventh clinic is in Rochester. “The number of patients we serve has gone up, and the places they come from have gotten further away,” Johnson said. And the clinic isn’t able to help everyone who calls. Cassidy Thompson, a patient educator and coordinator of the clinic’s volunteer patient escort program, recounted a call from a woman in Oklahoma who was “crying to me on the phone, saying, ‘Can’t you help me? State law requires patients to have a Minnesota mailing address and to be physically in Minnesota when speaking with a doctor. The “entire purpose of (my) career is to provide abortion care. No other clinics can take me right now.'” That patient was hoping for a telehealth consultation that would allow her to stay in Oklahoma and still obtain a medication abortion from the clinic. And to inform someone they are stuck with a forced pregnancy and we can not aid them with anything else… is just a complete takeaway of power,” Thompson said. “If that would have been a Minnesota resident, we would’ve been able to give them an abortion, no problem.” Most of the Minnesota patients at the clinic qualify for low-income assistance to help with the cost of an abortion, but it doesn’t cover the full cost of the procedure. Casey estimated that the clinic lost more than $60,000 last year by serving medical assistance patients, a deficit the clinic had to make up through fundraising. “A lot of doctors’ offices put caps on how many medical assistance patients they might see, but we don’t do that because we really want to provide for people that need it the most,” said Paulina Briggs, the lab supervisor and a patient educator at the clinic. But out-of-state patients don’t qualify for Minnesota’s medical assistance program. Nor does the clinic help out-of-state patients with travel costs; it doesn’t have the resources, Casey said. All this contributes to financial strain for people traveling across state lines for abortion care. “It’s just really sad to think about those people,” Briggs said. “Where they live is going to determine the kind of care that they’re going to get. People calling the clinic to volunteer, assist, or donate have been calling “like crazy,” according to Briggs, including nurses, physician assistants, and an attorney. The clinic also provides non-abortion services like birth control and breast and cervical cancer screenings. “The major challenge right now is just financial stability, making sure we have the financing,” Briggs said. We have simply gone backwards as of late.

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