A partisan divide over health care for poor

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Updated: May 17, 2009 - 7:11 PM

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has apparently succeeded in making Minnesota's decades-long, bipartisan commitment to basic health care for the indigent poor a partisan issue. On a straight party-line 87-47 vote, the Minnesota House Sunday fell three votes short of the votes needed to override Pawlenty's May 14 veto of a $380 million/year health care program for adults with incomes less than $7,800 per year. 

No Republican broke ranks to continue the program past July 1, 2010, when the veto would have it disappear. That's so despite word from the state's safety-net hospitals that they will begin layoffs immediately to prepare for the compensation they will lose with the elimination of the program. For Hennepin County Medical Center, the expected loss is a whopping $108 million in fiscal 2011.

DFLers warned that depriving the poor of routine medical care would only cost society more, as those now covered by the vetoed program seek medical care at costly emergency rooms. But money was not the focus of the House debate; morality was. This somber, emotion-laden debate seemed to be about Minnesota's soul. DFLers invoked Scripture and, in some instances, shed tears as they pleaded with Pawlenty's fellow Republicans to put politics aside and vote to preserve health care for "the least of these." They pointed out that the bulk of the program's beneficiaries suffer from mental illness, chemical dependency, and chronic disorders including diabetes, arthritis and heart disease.  

Some Republicans said they would uphold Pawlenty's position in hope that it would lead to changes that would slow the growth in state health care spending. Others said the veto would not have been necessary if DFLers had not funded so many programs of lesser priority. That position begs the question: why weren't those lower-priority programs the targets of the governor's veto, instead of a program that has made a life-or-death difference to the poor?

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