As Minneapolis clinics repair and rebuild after protests, doctors say unrest shows 'people's voices were unheard'

In the early morning hours of Saturday May 30, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a window at East Lake Clinic in South Minneapolis as escalating violence and unrest rocked the community. (Hennepin Healthcare)

In the early morning hours of May 30, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a window at East Lake Clinic in South Minneapolis.

It destroyed what had been left of the medical practice. It has already been damaged and vandalized over the previous three days.

Following the killing of George Floyd on May 25, residents in Minneapolis took to the streets to protest his death and to raise their voices against racial inequality and police brutality.

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As events evolved, the city has also been rocked by riots and unrest. Multiple community health clinics in the Twin Cities—which have long borne witness to inequalities that helped feed the outrage and sorrow following Floyd's death—were among the businesses damaged.

At East Lake Clinic and other practices, clinicians have been working to reduce barriers to healthcare access for local patients and are well aware of the challenges these neighborhoods face. When he saw the clinic's destruction, administrator Tom Lyon said he felt "extremely saddened" for the community.

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The neighborhood has lost critical healthcare services, said Lyon, vice president of ambulatory services at Hennepin Healthcare, which operates the East Lake Clinic. With the loss of restaurants, grocery stores and the clinic, the neighborhood has become both a food and a healthcare desert, he said.

East Lake Clinic in 2016 (Hennepin Healthcare)

"At the same time, you stand back and think, it’s hard to condemn what happened considering the fact that, in my mind, without these riots, would the stage still be set for this level of conversation that is occurring worldwide?" he said.

"It's mixed emotions. You feel fear for your employees who live in the area and you worry about their safety and emotional well-being," he said.

East Lake Clinic June 2020 (Hennepin Healthcare)

That area of south Minneapolis was experiencing a boom, Lyon said. "It wasn't from gentrification or affluence moving in. There were ethnically diverse populations creating successful businesses over the last few decades. They were working hard to see it succeed. To see this, it was tragic."

Broadway Family Medicine Clinic in North Minneapolis also was damaged during rioting and looting but that's just the tangible impact that you can physically see, according to Kacey Justesen, M.D., a family medicine physician at the clinic.

"I'm very sad and angry at the situation. I'm certainly not angry at our community. I'm angry that it has come to this. That people felt the need to have violent protests because their voices were unheard for so long," said Justesen, who also serves as the clinic's residency director.

Broadway Family Medicine Clinic, which is operated by the University of Minnesota Physicians, has been serving that community for more than 40 years.

"Our population is predominantly African American, most live under the federal poverty line and the majority are on public state health insurance," Justesen said. "Our patients all affected on a daily basis by this. Many have been victims of the pain and suffering all of these recent events have resulted in."

The organizations did not disclose the financial cost of the damage to their buildings.

Hennepin Healthcare is a health system operated by the county with an academic medical center and a network of primary care and specialty clinics in Minneapolis.

Several clinic locations were damaged during the rioting. Over that last week in May, the riots became more intense, Lyon said.

First, East Lake Clinic's windows were broken, the next night, the clinic's computers were stolen and the lab was destroyed. By Friday, the clinic wasn't a functioning space. The fire and subsequent water damage from putting out the fire took what was left.

RELATED: COVID-19 is widening gaps in health equity. Here are some ways organizations are trying to address it

Another damaged clinic is still up and running but prescription medications, including narcotics, had been stolen from the pharmacy. "Habit and addiction-forming prescription drugs got onto the street," Lyon said.

Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic had already pushed most clinics to transition patient appointments to telehealth.

Broadway Family Medicine Clinic has been able to leverage its telehealth capabilities to continue serving patients while it repairs the physical damage to the practice. "As far as in-person patient visits, we'll be resuming that next week. Because of all the virtual visits that we’re doing, we can see as many patients as we need to," she said.

For Hennepin Healthcare, the physicians and staff from the East Lake Clinic have been relocated to another clinic about three miles away.

The healthcare team was concerned about how they could continue to provide care to their patient population with buses and light rail temporarily shut down, Lyon said. "In this area, a lot of our patients rely on metro transit and on walking. To go a few miles to grab groceries or to see a doctor, it can be a hike."

A Minneapolis businessman provided vans to the clinic so that it could shuttle patients to the new location.

"If there is one silver lining, it's that people came out of the woodwork to donate funding and other resources to help support the rebuilding of that clinic," Lyon said.

Lyon said Hennepin Healthcare will rebuild the clinic in south Minneapolis to continue serving that neighborhood.

"We’re dedicated to that neighborhood and our mission to serve that population. Being a safety net hospital, and really under the umbrella of the county, if we don't build there, we will absolutely find another site that services that neighborhood. We want to continue to provide access to care for those patients," he said.

The expansion of telehealth visits during the pandemic has opened up an opportunity for East Lake Clinic to rethink how it delivers patient care as it also looks to rebuild, he said.

"I think this is a new era of delivering care. During our COVID response, we were able to build out these services such as nurse triage, video visits, and telephone visits, and now we can look at how we can offer potentially many more services to that area and population. Before, we were constrained by the general geography of the location itself. I think we can deliver care in a new way," he said.

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