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Paradise Center, LTO prepare for audiences' return with upcoming performances
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It might feel as if live entertainment is a thing of the past, but local venues are easing back to normalcy one performance at a time.

This month in particular, the Paradise Center of the Arts has its first live production since October. Old Country Boys open for The Rebel and The Stranger 7 p.m. Friday, April 9. Capacity is limited, but there’s a livestreaming option. Those interested in attending in person are encouraged to book their seats early.

Mario Carboni, left, is known as “the best honky tonk player of his generation.” Norm Hamlet, also known as The Stranger, is a two-time Hall of Fame steel guitar player and a band leader with Merle Haggard for 49 years. Both perform at the Paradise Center for the Arts Friday, April 9. (Photo courtesy of Gregg Sartor)

“We are looking forward to safely being able to offer entertainment again to anyone who wants to go out and see a live show,” said Heidi Nelson, Paradise Center for the Arts executive director. “We also have a livestream, on Eventbrite. That will be through YouTube, so for people who have a smart TV, they can watch it through their television.”

The livestream allows the Paradise to expand its reach to viewers well beyond Faribault, and it includes those who don’t yet feel comfortable attending events in person.

Nelson attended the same high school as Jeff Sartor, the lead singer of Old Country Boys, and he reached out last fall to see if the Paradise Center would host The Rebel and The Stranger. That performance was originally on the lineup for last fall, but COVID-19 caused a postponement.

Based in Faribault, Old Country Boys is a band of four that plays classic country covers with a blend of southern rock.

“Lot of it is geared toward a lot of dancing,” Sartor said. “We call it ‘hard-driving, classic country,’ so to speak.”

The Old Country Boys are coming to the Paradise Center for the Arts April 9, following a few months without live performances during the pandemic. Pictured from left: vocalist Jeff Sartor, drummer Kevin Eastburn, guitarist Gregg Sartor and bassist Mark Burmeister. (Photo courtesy of Old Country Boys)

The group consists of Jeff Sartor along with his brother Gregg Sartor on guitar, Mark Burmeister on bass and Kevin Eastburn on drums. The last performance for the group was at a wedding in November 2020, and they also played at a couple small birthday parties during the pandemic. But the Paradise Center will mark the band’s first live performance at an entertainment venue in months.

The band is getting excited for April 9’s performance, Sartor said, first and foremost because it signifies the end is near for COVID-19.

“Even for myself, I can’t wait to see some live shows because it’s so important to everybody,” Sartor said. “It tells you how important live music is to your wellbeing.”

Sartor had wanted to see The Rebel and The Stranger perform in Stillwater last year, but the concert had been cancelled due to COVID-19. He invited the musicians to come to Faribault, where Old Country Boys would open for them at the Paradise Center.

“The Rebel” of the performance is Mario Carboni, also known as The Honky Tonk Rebel. A world class pianist in the classic country genre, Carboni has toured the U.S. and, according to Sartor, he “can do things that seem almost not humanly possible” on piano. Viewers at home will see his piano skills up close, as he will wear cameras on his hands during the Paradise Center performance.

Norm Hamlet, “The Stranger,” was the steel guitar player for American country music legend Merle Haggard for over 40 years. From 1965 to Haggard’s death in 2016, Hamlet played with Merle Haggard and the Strangers. He continues to call himself “The Stranger” after Haggard’s band.

“If you hear any Merle Haggard songs with a steel guitar, that was him,” Sartor said of Hamlet. “He’s as sharp today as he was 30 years ago. It’s amazing what he can do.”

Sartor personally wrote an acoustic song about Hamlet’s career with Haggard, which he will debut at the Paradise Center before Hamlet himself performs.

Those who miss the live performance of The Rebel and The Stranger have a second chance to see them the next evening in Faribault, 7 p.m. at the Fraternal Order of the Eagles. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets can be purchased online at bit.ly/31GfL5n.

Back in business

Transitioning back to regularly scheduled performances has been challenging, said Nelson, because the Paradise Center isn’t the only venue trying to reschedule performers. The Paradise Center schedule is planned a year and a half to two years in advance, so the new task is shifting around performances that had been planned up to 2022.

The last live performance at the Paradise Center was “Paradise Radio Suspense Theater” in October 2020, which also had a livestream option. Elvis tribute performer Joseph Hall gave a live performance in August, and before that, the final show before COVID-19 was an Irish music festival in early March 2020.

Slowly but surely, the Paradise Center is scheduling more live performances. After The Rebel and the Stranger, visual artist and musician Walter Salas-Humara performs May 21. The Merlin Players are also rehearsing for a show that will be recorded like a movie, Nelson said.

The government mandate says entertainment venues can operate at 50% capacity, or in the case of the Paradise Center, 140 seats. However, Nelson explained that PCA can’t accommodate that many guests and social distance properly at the same time.

For The Rebel and The Stranger, every other row in the audience will be blocked off. Groups who come together can sit together, but there needs to be at least two vacant seats on either side of every individual or group. Attendees will have temperature checks at the door.

Since the concession stands will be closed, each guest will receive a free beverage before taking their seat. There will be a clear ingress and egress — in on the south side and out on the north side. Those who can’t use the stairs for any reason can go back the way they entered on the ramp. Sanitizer stations will be in place in the auditorium before and after performances.

“We’re incredibly grateful to our community because the people here have been so supportive of the Paradise Center for the Arts, and we’re excited to bring them live entertainment,” Nelson said.

“The Gin Game”

Little Theatre of Owatonna also has a live production coming up this month with a livestreaming option.

“The Gin Game,” a play by D.L. Coburn and directed by Kip Niven, features just two actors learning about each other’s lives through a card game. Lead characters Weller Martin, played by Bill Wood, and Fonsia Dorsey, played by Kristin Sellentine, are senior citizens engaging in a game of gin rummy.

“It’s funny and kind of sad and emotional, which is what theater is supposed to be,” said Kristy Westergaard, president of the Board of Directors for LTO.

Performances for “The Gin Game” will be at 7:30 p.m., April 23, 24, 30 and May 1 with matinee performances at 2 p.m., April 25 and May 2. Westergaard encourages patrons to order tickets early, since the theater is open at limited capacity.

Like the Paradise Center, opening LTO at 50% capacity would make social distancing difficult due to its size. There will be 80 seats open for each performance with every other row blocked off and social distancing between groups and individuals. All patrons must wear masks.

Because LTO rents its space from the city of Owatonna, it was able to open earlier than many theaters. The last show at LTO was “Clue: On Stage” in February.

“The last show we also had an online viewing option, and that really helps with a lot of our older patrons in the building,” Westergaard said. “Now with a lot of our older patrons being vaccinated, I’m interested to see the turnout for the next show.”

Medicare trust fund reportedly nearing insolvency, low reimbursement rates continue
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As a Medicare trust fund reportedly moves closer to insolvency, local care providers say low reimbursement rates through the government program are continuing to leave them with less funding and call into question the feasibility of single-payer health care.

Medicare and Medicaid are the largest sources of funding for Owatonna Hospital and District One Hospital in Faribault. David Albrecht, president of both organizations, noted the two programs consist of 60% of total revenue. He said despite that, it’s not uncommon to experience only a 1% increase in Medicare reimbursement per year, compared to 15% to 20% increases in pharmaceutical costs. Medicaid, a state-administered program, has even lower reimbursement rates. He noted reimbursements remain low, because the federal government is consistently operating from a deficit and cutting costs.

“If all of our payment was based upon the Medicare reimbursement rates, we would go out of business,” Albrecht said.

According to National Public Radio, Medicare’s trustees have reported that the Part A trust fund, which pays for hospital and other inpatient care, would start to run out of money in 2026. That is considered as the same projection in 2019. But the trustees reportedly cautioned at the time that their projections did not include the impact of COVID-19 on the trust fund.

However, David Shulkin, former undersecretary of health at the Department of Veterans Affairs under President Barack Obama for two years and one year under President Donald Trump, said in July 2020 that the Medicare Trust Fund could become insolvent in 2022. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that Medicare spending would need to be cut by 17% without Congressional action to keep the program operational.

If Medicare Part A becomes insolvent, Albrecht sad there might be more industry consolidations and closures in smaller health care systems.

“Under the current fee-for-service model, we are headed for a crash at some point,” he said.

New model

To prevent a crash, Albrecht suggested changing the Medicare payment model to being performance-based and creating incentives to keep people well to avoid large health care costs.

Presenting a summary of the 2020 audit process for Northfield Hospital and Clinics during a March 18 meeting, Rob Schile of CliftonLarsonAllen also said Medicare insolvency is possible. Part A, which receives approximately 88% of its revenue from payroll taxes, was hit with losses as COVID-19-related measures brought rising unemployment rates. Though hospital volumes across the country continue rebounding, they still are only at 85% to 90% of pre-COVID-19 levels, and there is no guarantee that gap will ever completely close.

The federal government has provided health care providers with much money and eased budget deficits — $1 trillion in 2019 alone. Schile said he expects a sharp increase in government spending during COVID-19 to stimulate the economy to only increase debt levels and trigger a mechanism forcing the government to immediately fund expenses as they accrue costs. He anticipates that will statutorily drive spending reductions across the government, including a 4% reduction in health care payments.

Also, he said Congress will need to intervene because the federal government doesn’t have enough wiggle room to balance the budget through only cutting costs and can only reduce spending $80 to $100 billion per year. Though Schile noted providers could experience an uptick in demand for health care services as the months pass, he expects more patients, because of adverse economic conditions, to not be able to afford health care. He anticipates Medicare will continue pushing care in lower-cost settings and shift risk to the providers who are willing to accept it.

To Albrecht, if single-payer health care, a proposal supported by some Democrats, was in place and used Medicare reimbursement rates, the impact would be “devastating for health care systems across the country.”

Those comments mirror statements made by Northfield Hospital and Clinics CEO Steve Underdahl last August. During a Hospital Board meeting, Underdahl said a 2019 federal Medicare for All proposal would have cost the organization more than $50 million that year and nearly eliminated reserve funds based on current program reimbursement rates.

AMA: Prevent further Medicare cuts

Cutting Medicare and Medicaid funding could prove politically difficult. In a letter penned to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy earlier this year, American Medical Association CEO James Madara said he supports extending the current moratorium on 2% Medicare sequester cuts beyond March 31, a proposal that would also avoid the additional 4% cut. He said across-the-board direct spending cuts “threaten the financial viability of physician practices, especially during the COVID-19 public health emergency and beyond.”

“As the COVID-19 pandemic persists and continues to have a substantial fiscal impact on physician practices, it is critically important that physicians are able to provide frontline care to Medicare beneficiaries,” Madara said. “These arbitrary, across-the-board Medicare cuts are detrimental and will surely have a devastating impact on many already distressed physician practices that are still recovering from substantial financial losses due to the pandemic.”

Schile said because of rising health care costs wrought from increased deductibles and insurance costs, consumers are doing more research before deciding where to receive care. In 2015, an estimated 53% of patients reported staying with their current provider. Four years later, that number had decreased to 40%. He attributes that change to the vast amount of information available online and the flexible hours some providers offer in a remote setting.

He said health care systems, like NH+C, must adjust to those changing trends and understand that patients no longer decide where to access care solely based on their location.

Bill calls for strengthening teachers' personal finance training
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In recent years, economics and personal finance courses have played an increasingly crucial role in helping Minnesota students to prepare for life after school. Yet less than 2% of teachers who provide these courses focused on economics as part of their teacher preparation.

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, hopes to change that by joining other legislators in calling for the state to invest in professional development courses through the University of Minnesota’s Council on Economic Education. The additional training is designed to help teachers better prepare for courses around economics and personal finance.

The council, which has traditionally played an important role in helping to better inform students, teachers and communities about economics and personal finance, was launched in 1961 and has been hosted by the University’s Department of Applied Economics since 1992. Council Executive Director Julie Bunn touted its record of success, having reached some 35,000 teachers and 3 million students

Duckworth’s bill would provide $300,000 in funding for the courses over the biennium. The council would be able to offer resources online, but would also have to have in-person classes throughout the state, including at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Owatonna Community Bank President and CEO Tim Kluender supports the legislation, seeing it as an excellent investment for the state that could pay for itself many times over if it helps young people to make smarter financial decisions.

“I think anything that could increase knowledge in this area is helpful, as (young people) enter adulthood,” he said. “For $300,000, I think there would be an excellent return on that type of investment.”

State Bank of Faribault President John Carlander said that he, too, supports efforts to increase financial literacy. Carlander said that it’s critical that schools teach students basic financial literacy skills so they don’t find themselves in trouble when they get older.

“It’s not an easy thing to balance a budget, whether you’re in business or at a personal level,” he said. “If these concepts aren’t taught to students starting at an early age, by the time they get out of high school it’s too late.”

In its annual Parents, Kids & Money Survey, released in December, investment management firm T. Rowe Price found that families who try to “keep up with the Joneses” are more reluctant (62% vs. 30%) to have money conversations with their kids and more likely to have risky financial behaviors and habits. Overall, about 41% of parents responding reported having some reluctance discussing financial topics with their kids.

“Discussing money with kids is particularly important in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when many families have been affected — from smaller consequences like a canceled vacation to a parent who has lost a job,” says Roger Young, a senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price. “

The council, Bunn says, focuses on promoting knowledge of topics that are highly practical, from basic financial literacy skills like how to budget and save, as well as consumer skills that could help students avoid falling victim to scams. According to Bunn, interest in the council’s offerings increased significantly during the pandemic. Over the last year alone, she said the council provided financial literacy and economic resources for about 1,200 teachers.

Duckworth said the issue was brought to him by local businesses and chambers of commerce interested in improving financial literacy among Minnesota’s youth. The senator argued that while many Minnesota teachers already make a valiant effort to teach students about economics and personal finance, more training could make them more effective.

“We want to empower teachers with the ability to seek out training in (economics and personal finance),” he said. “This could help the quality of our education to be that more relevant.”

The Council’s Master Teachers program offers mentorship opportunities for teachers who feel unsure about teaching economics and personal finance. However, only two of the master teachers listed on the Council’s website teach in greater Minnesota and both are in the state’s northwest region.

Master teacher, Champlin’s Jamie Shaw, testified on behalf of the bill before the House Commerce Committee last week. Shaw said the program has made a huge difference for the economics and personal finance teachers she taken under her wing.

“Most new teachers that I’ve worked with are nervous about economics and personal finance,” she said. “But as soon as I introduce them to the wealth of information, the workshops and the passionate teachers at CEE, they never see economics and personal finance the same again.”

The bipartisan bill, backed by Eden Prairie DFLer Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn in the House and a group of two DFLers and two Republicans including Duckworth in the Senate, was held over for possible inclusion into the omnibus bill.