Lawmakers see human face of GAMC cut

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Minnesotans who depend on the state’s General Assistance Medical Care program – and workers who provide the care – said health care for everyone will suffer if the GAMC program is eliminated March 1. 


Some 36,000 very poor people, many with serious chronic conditions, depend on GAMC for health care. Many of the adults who qualify for GAMC are living on $203 per month. Governor Tim Pawlenty eliminated funding for the program as part of his “unallotment” of the state budget last year.


Scrambling to find a solution, legislators held a hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol. They heard from Franklin King, a former construction worker who now depends on GAMC for injections to slow the growth of his incurable cancer.


“As a cancer patient, access to health care is extremely important and necessary for me,” King told lawmakers attending a joint hearing of the state Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division and the Committee on Health Housing and Family Security.


“How would the governor and those who support his policies feel if they had a loved one who got cancer and had their medical cut?”


Duluth resident Trixy Weddig said, “In years past, I was part of the workforce,” but illness forced her onto GAMC. She currently takes 10 medications for mental health treatment and other issues.


“Access to health care means I can see a psychiatrist and receive therapy,” she said.


James Deedee, who served in the Marines in Vietnam, said GAMC provides coverage he cannot get through the Veterans Administration. “If I lose GAMC, I worry that I can’t pay my rent,” he said.


Cuts affect everyone


Workers who treat GAMC clients say the program is an important part of the health care delivery system – and its elimination threatens the quality of care for all.


“If the GAMC cuts stand, we’re going to see a vastly increased volume in our emergency room and in our in-patient care units,” said Steve Fitze, a nursing station technician at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and a member of AFSCME Local 1164.


Hospitals will be serving more uninsured patients, meaning they will have to cut staff to make ends meet and “we already operate with a very thin margin for errors,” Fitze said.


“The elimination of GAMC does not just affect GAMC recipients,” he said. “Every individual who walks through the door of a Minnesota hospital is going to receive a lower level of care than they currently do.”


Stephanie Wells, a registered nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center and a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association, concurred. “The care is not going to be there when you need it and it won’t just be the GAMC patients,” she said.


Senator Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, is leading efforts to craft a bill to continue health coverage for GAMC recipients. She outlined some of its provisions Wednesday at the hearing, but said it is still very much a work in progress.


Her proposal uses a combination of sources, including a surcharge on federal Medicaid payments, money from counties and reduced payments to health care providers to fund GAMC for the next 16 months. She also would change some aspects of the program while retaining is fundamental eligibility and coverage provisions.


“While this is not a perfect solution, it is a solution that puts money on the table to solve the problem,” she said.


Some speakers urged lawmakers to consider more ways to raise money.


“Restoring GAMC without raising revenue will force us to cannibalize other public services that people need, especially during tough times,” said Mark McAfee, legislative representative for AFSCME Council 5, which represents 3,300 workers at major safety net hospitals.


He said AFSCME would support an increase in the health care provider tax, an increase in the state’s alcoholic beverage tax and higher income taxes for wealthy Minnesotans.


A way to continue the GAMC program must be found soon, every speaker at the hearing said.


“The Department of Human Services has the letters ready to throw people off this program March 1,” said Mary Krinkie, representative for the Minnesota Hospital Association. “The letters are ready. We are very anxious we get a solution in the opening weeks of session.”