"Condition Critical" is an occasional series by Star Tribune reporters examining the economic squeeze on today's health care system. A growth industry in Minnesota for three decades, health care has come under intense pressure as insurers, employers, consumers and public officials put the brakes on spending. For consumers, the good news is that health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in more than a decade. For industry players, however, the trend is causing painful adjustments.

FEBRUARY 1: Once immune from recessions, Minnesota's hospitals and medical clinics are seeing wave after wave of layoffs as hard-pressed consumers cut back on care and forgo doctor visits.

MARCH 29: Alarmed by a drop in revenues and an increase in bad debt, hospitals are finding novel and sometimes aggressive new ways to collect payment.

TODAY: In a stingier environment, med-tech companies find it harder to generate interest among customers and investors for the latest technological breakthroughs. This indifference threatens the "innovation ecosystem'' that spawned Minnesota giants such as Medtronic and St. Jude Medical.