Berglin, DFL push for constitutional amendment to stop raids on state health care fund


Tired of watching Governor Tim Pawlenty try to raid Health Care Access Fund dollars to balance deficits in the general fund, DFL legislative leaders are attempting to put the matter in the hands of the voters. On Thursday, Senate Health and Human Services Budget committee chair Linda Berglin (DFL-Minneapolis) brought forth a bill for a constitutional amendment that would mandate that HCAF monies go to the state-supported health insurance plan known as Minnesota Care, as originally intended when HCAF and Minnesota Care were created by Berglin and other legislators 16 years ago. Berglin’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth), is expected to introduce a companion bill in that body either Friday or early next week. If approved by both the full House and Senate before the session adjourns (the deadline is a week from today), the amendment will appear on the ballot this November.

Almost every year that he has been governor, Pawlenty has attempted to take HCAF monies — derived from a tax on health care providers and insurance plans — to balance a deficit or otherwise fund programs contained in the state’s general fund. This session he recently dropped his proposal to tap $250 million from the fund, but is still asking for $48 million per year to ease the transition of people enrolled in General Assistance Medical Care into Minnesota Care. Supporters of Minnesota Care (and additional health care funding in general) view the governor’s attempt to use HCAF for an ongoing budget line item rather than as one-time money as a potentially unwelcome precedent.

“We believe a constitutional amendment is necessary because clearly the current law, which prohibits these transfers, is not being enforced,” said Minnesota Nurses Association representative Mary Jo George in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee yesterday. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been transferred from the Health Care Access Fund to reduce deficits, and sadly tens of thousands of Minnesotans have had their medical safety net severed for the sake of balancing the budget…we are concerned, without dedicated funds, we may not have a [Minnesota Care] program.” An executive from Allina Hospitals & Clinics and a representative of the SEIU also spoke in favor of Berglin’s bill, which passed the finance committee and was sent by the full senate to the rules committee yesterday.

Huntley’s companion bill will have to go through similar legislative hurdles in the House and any differences between the two will have to be reconciled before this session’s May 19 deadline. Governor Pawlenty cannot veto proposals for constitutional amendments passed by the legislature. Asked if she fears that the bill will prompt Pawlenty to take a harder line on the current budget negotiations in general and health care spending in particular, Berglin laughed and said, “he’s already threatening cuts, so what’s the difference?”

The Minnesota House on Wednesday passed a bill that would allow the University of Minnesota to use state funds to conduct research using embryonic stem cells. The measure prompted a flurry of amendments by pro-life Republicans designed to derail the bill.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, introduced an amendment that would limit the use of embryos only to those that had died a “natural death.” Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, offered an amendment that would have forced Minnesota’s attorney general to investigate the University of Minnesota, because Severson feels research conducted at the university on embryonic stem cells violates the law.

“The researcher has to take this living organism and has to slice it up,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano. “It destroys the living organism.” He continued, “Would we take an individual that is sentenced to life imprisonment, would we start cutting them up for research? No. And you might think that’s a little over the top, but it’s the same thing for some of us.”

It might be a little over the top. The embryos used for stem-cell research are called blastocysts and have, on average, between 50-150 cells. An individual who is sentenced to life imprisonment has an estimated 50 trillion to 100 trillion cells. And is of course a human being.

Kahn’s bill would only allow research on embryos that patients have donated to science. “Let’s talk about the life of those frozen embryos,” said Kahn. “They stay alive only as long as the couple who created them wish them to stay alive. If the commercial entity that stores those embryos isn’t paid, then those embryos are discarded and at some point they are no longer viable and are discarded.”

She also said that public funding would help to allay many people’s concerns over cloning or unethical procurement of embryos for research. “For people who have ethical concerns, you have to have public funding. That’s the only way you get public oversight,” she said.

The stem-cell bill passed the House 71-62 Wednesday afternoon. The bill passed the Senate in the 2007 legislative session. Gov. Tim Pawlenty will likely veto the measure.

The stark contrast in political ideology is evident in the dueling press releases that emerged Thursday morning after the vote.

From the office of Rep. Kahn:

ST. PAUL — Recognizing the significant potential for medical and scientific breakthroughs, the House of Representatives today passed legislation authorizing the University of Minnesota to perform stem-cell research. The bill lays the scientific and medical basis for stem-cell research and defines what can be studied, including embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL – Minneapolis), the chief author of the bill, said the bill enables Minnesota to join other states on the cutting edge of medical and scientific research.

“Stem-cell research offers immense potential to fight and cure pervasive and chronic diseases,” said Kahn. “Minnesota has historically been a haven for biomedical and scientific innovation and we should join other states in the effort to realize the curative promise that stem-cell research can offer to hundreds of millions of suffering Americans.”

And from Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life:

ST. PAUL — In a heartless act of disregard for the earliest stages of human life, the Minnesota House of Representatives today voted 71-62 in favor of human cloning and embryo-killing experiments. The vote approved the deadly Kahn Cloning Bill, S.F. 100, which legalizes human cloning and forces taxpayers to pay for the destruction of human life on a scale never before seen in Minnesota.

“House members today had a chance to do the right thing and protect vulnerable human life, but instead they chose to treat human life as mere raw material for experimentation,” said Andrea Rau, MCCL legislative associate. “It is a dark day for citizens to see their taxes being spent on such unjust treatment of human life.”

House members approved the deadly bill authored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, which allows taxpayer funding for the destruction of human embryos for experiments and also the wanton creation and destruction of human life through cloning at the University of Minnesota.