Hennepin County: Health plan too risky

Commissioners want to negotiate contract terms for the new health program to protect it should its hospital become a magnet for treating poor patients.

Hennepin County commissioners, nervous that a new health care program for the indigent could make their hospital a statewide safety net, voted Tuesday to reject the state's contract for the program and instead negotiate terms that put the county at less risk.

The program called the Coordinated Care Delivery System, is scheduled to begin June 1. State officials want participating hospitals to return contracts by May 1.

But commissioners said they first needed to make sure that Hennepin County isn't signing on to provide unlimited benefits for an unknown number of enrollees from outside the county who can't get care locally.

The annual cost of uncompensated health care for the county could rise from $28 million to upwards of $70 million, County Board Chair Mike Opat said.

"We're talking about huge amounts of money here that would destabilize Hennepin County Medical Center, that would destabilize Hennepin County. ... That's why it's so critically important that we get this right," Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said.

Only five of 17 qualifying hospitals -- including Hennepin County Medical Center -- have so far agreed to participate in the new program, which is for patients who up to now have relied on the state's General Assistance Medical Care program to cover their health bills.

The contract would formalize that agreement and set the terms and details.

The GAMC program was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who then struck a compromise with legislators to form the consolidated system. While GAMC provided $300 million to cover patients, the new $164 million program grants a lump sum to participating hospitals, which must decide how to make the money work.

The county board met Tuesday morning behind closed doors to hash out the resolution, which it unanimously passed in committee later in the afternoon.

In the resolution, the board says that HCMC, the county and its taxpayers will fall victim to "excessive and unquantifiable" financial risk if only a few hospitals participate in the new program.

State officials declined to comment Tuesday, saying that they were in the middle of contract discussions with hospitals and did not know enough about the board's action.

HCMC, the state's busiest hospital for the indigent, already was facing a budget crunch when Pawlenty ended the GAMC program to help balance the state's budget. The loss of GAMC meant an annual cut of $50 million to HCMC.

In other county action

Also Tuesday, commissioners adjusted the financing for the Lowry Bridge project to reflect the loss of an expected $10 million in federal stimulus funds. The reason: The county's minority hires for the project didn't meet federal guidelines.

County Administrator Richard Johnson said county officials thought their minority partner, Summit Academy, made them eligible for the federal funds. Summit Academy, a vocational school, has supplied minority workers for the project as has the main contractor, Lunda Construction of Black River Falls, Wis.

The board voted Tuesday to replace the $10 million in lost federal funds with an additional $10 million in county bonding.

The board also approved a $30 million financing package for the second phase of the project, making Lowry Avenue a four-lane roadway as it approaches the bridge from the west. That funding will consist of $20 million in county bonds and $10 million in state bonds.

The bridge is closed for construction. The project is slated to be done by January 2012.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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