Push is on to save coverage for poor

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE
  • Star Tribune
  • January 13, 2010 - 8:03 PM

DFL legislators and state human services officials are scrambling to refine legislation that Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty will support to save a health care program that serves 35,000 of the state's poorest residents.

At a joint meeting of two Senate committees on Wednesday, Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, outlined what she called an "imperfect'' proposal for a stripped-down, 16-month version of the program.

The program, called General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC), will end March 1 unless a deal is struck early in the legislative session that starts in three weeks, Berglin said.

At the end of 16 months, new federal Medicaid laws might be in place to pick up GAMC patients if Congress succeeds in passing its pending health-care legislation, Berglin said. If not, the current program automatically would replace the pared-down temporary one, she said.

To finance the program, Berglin's plan would slash state payments to hospitals, double a Medicare surcharge tax paid by hospitals and health plans, and require counties to come up with 10 percent of the costs. Yet it might be acceptable to all parties because the alternative is more uninsured Minnesotans who still seek care.

"If we do nothing, it's disaster for people who are sick, poor and often homeless," said Monica Nilsson, outreach director at St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis. She introduced five recipients who testified at the hearing Wednesday.

The proposal has broad general support from a coalition of affected groups, including hospitals, counties, insurers and advocates for the poor, said Michael Scandrett, a Minneapolis consultant who works with the coalition.

All those testifying supported the thrust of the bill, though most suggested tweaks.

Berglin said she hopes adjusting the bill to meet suggestions from the Minnesota Department of Human Services will help bring Pawlenty on board. Pawlenty has said the state will transfer 28,000 of the 35,000 GAMC recipients to the MinnesotaCare insurance program for lower-income working people, but said he is open to other suggestions.

Pawlenty vetoed GAMC earlier this year to save $400 million and help balance the budget. Berglin said her proposal would generate the money needed to pay for the program, some of it from the federal government.

"We are open to considering health care reforms during the 2010 session, but they need to be financially responsible," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said Wednesday. He said the surcharges in her plan "could be passed onto patients, making health care more expensive."

MinnesotaCare "is not a very good fit" for most GAMC clients, said Art Gonzalez, CEO of Hennepin County Medical Center, the state's largest hospital and largest provider of care to those clients.

People on GAMC earn less than $8,000 a year and typically cope with mental illness, chemical dependency and homelessness. Few could afford the modest copays or premiums charged even to the poorest on MinnesotaCare, said Nilsson.

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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