Focus on pluses, Berglin urges

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE
  • Star Tribune
  • August 19, 2009 - 7:42 AM

A federal overhaul of the nation's health care system "is going to be good for Minnesota, and I'm getting a little tired of people seizing on the problems instead of the possibilities," the state's chief legislative expert on health care policy said Tuesday.

"Of course it's complex. Of course it's possible to get it wrong -- only do half the job, for instance," said Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis.

Berglin spoke after a hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee where two health policy analysts discussed the effects of likely federal action. Her comments came after two weeks when congressional proposals to revamp the health insurance system have been buffeted by skeptics at town hall meetings across the state and nation.

Berglin, who chairs the committee, was a chief architect of a 2007 law that launched state health care reforms that are still being put in place -- and being watched by federal officials, the two health experts testified. Over the next few years, they said, Minnesota's efforts could improve the targeting and coordination of medical care to improve Minnesotans' health and hold down cost increases.

Minnesota's experience with reform and cost control will make it "a player at the table" as federal officials change the system and perhaps experiment with ways to improve Medicare quality and costs, said Jean Abraham, a health policy expert at the University of Minnesota. She returned in May after a year as senior economist for health on the President's Council of Economic Advisers. Her job was drafting health reform policy.

Abraham and Lynn Blewett, another health policy analyst at the university, said federal proposals are in such flux -- in some cases not even in bill form -- that it's impossible to predict what will emerge or exactly how it will affect Minnesota.

State's experience can help

Just as Minnesota was a model for national legislation providing health care coverage for low-income children, "so too Minnesota's experience can help people in Washington refine how health reform might work," said Blewett. She heads the State Health Access Data Assistance Center, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to provide policy analysis and technical help to states and federal agencies.

"There's room for criticism" in the health care debate, Berglin admitted. "For instance, if we try to reform the system without addressing health care costs, that's not going to do the job."

Both at the meeting and in an interview afterward, Berglin bristled at some "uninformed distractions" in the debate.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other governors who worry that states will face impossible costs with expanded Medicaid health coverage for the poor "don't seem to realize that the federal government will pick up most of that cost,'' she said.

"There will be costs, and there will be savings,'' she said in an interview. "I don't think [the governors are] playing politics. I think they're just ignorant" about the proposals.

In much the same vein, Berglin challenged fellow committee member Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley. At one point during the hearing, Koering said, "I don't know how we're ever going to pay" for a government-sponsored "public option" health care plan to compete with health insurers.

"Senator Koering, state employees have a public plan, where you have your [health] insurance," she said. "How's that working out for you?"

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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