Minnesota Health Plan draws citizen support, passes committee

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It’s not often that bills in Senate committee hearings are greeted with an overflow crowd, but that was the case Monday as the Minnesota Health Plan was taken up by the Health, Housing and Family Security Committee. More than 100 people wearing stickers in support a single-payer system crowded into the committee hearing to show their silent support for the bill presented by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

Minnesota Health Plan draws citizen support, passes committee
The Minnesota Health Plan would move health insurance to a single-payer system where everyone in the state would be covered and premiums would be based on ability to pay. After many heart-wrenching testimonials in support of the bill and several in opposition, mainly from members of the insurance industry, the bill passed the committee by a voice vote including that of one Republican, Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley.

Mary Cowen, a nursing assistant at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, provided some insight into the struggles that those with insurance face. Her premiums recently increased $250 a month for a total monthly payment of $801. “It meant working almost two weeks each month to provide health care for my family,” she told the committee. So she took on a different plan with a 20 percent co-pay. Shortly after that, her husband got kidney stones. She also has asthma and was deferring treatment to save money until a really bad attack landed her in the emergency room. The bills have piled up.

“I’m here to tell you that this system is broken and we can do better. I want a fair value for my money,” she said.

Leah Erickson was diagnosed with lupus in her teens, which led to kidney failure in her 20s. As a single mom, her only reasonable option for health insurance for her and her son is to work full time. “In order to keep my health coverage, I have to work full time in addition to spending 15 hours a week on dialysis,” Erickson said. Her minimum expenditure each year is more than $8,000, and her credit has suffered as she has unsuccessfully tried to stay on top of her bills.

Susan Jordan works for the housing authority in Duluth. “My life is the perfect example of how you can do everything right and still lose everything due to inadequate insurance coverage,” she told the committee.

He child has a seizure disorder, and her husband was diagnosed with congenital heart failure. She got laid off shortly after her husband was diagnosed, and the family was living off welfare. But she was successful in picking the family up by its bootstraps. She moved her family to Duluth because it was cheaper than living in the Twin Cities and found a job that offered health insurance for her family. They bought a small home and lived a modest life. Over the next few years, she saw a 17 percent increase in her insurance while her income increased 1.1 percent a year. Her husband was self-employed but his working was accelerating his disease. So she worked between two and three jobs at a time when he couldn’t work. They were one health crisis away from ruin. In June 2004, that crisis happened.

Jordan’s husband suffered a stroke, and he lost some of his speech and reasoning abilities. How would she care for her husband while still working full time to support the family and keep them insured? The insurance denied her claim for rehabilitation for her husband — even though doctors said it was necessary — because he could feed himself and use the bathroom himself. The insurance company said of her children caring for him, “Well, I guess they are just going to have to step up to the plate,” she recalled.

She applied for public assistance, but the family made $17 a month too much and was rejected. The family’s bills mounted, and then notices that their home and car would be taken away showed up in the mailbox.

Jordan, in tears before the committee, said that under this system, “My children would be forced to live in poverty in order to get health care.”

John Tyler, a member of the Citizen’s Council on Health Care and a health savings account salesman, railed against the single-payer plan. The high costs are not because of the uninsured accessing emergency rooms or high CEO salaries, he said, but because “health insurance is probably the most heavily regulated industry in the country.”
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The solution to the health care crisis is to remove mandates (there are around 60 in Minnesota) and “provide people with a menu of 60 different options” in health plans, Tyler said. The private market should be encouraged to create “a blend of catastrophic insurance and account-based coverage.”

Tyler also said for those on MinnesotaCare or other government-sponsored health care, the health savings account model would inspire them to make their own decisions.

“We can better help them help themselves because you can’t do that for them. And they do a fabulous job,” said Tyler. “By the way, the less rich they are, the more they work at it. Trust me, they do.”

At vote time, Koering said: “I’m voting yes. Am I scared of this? Of course I am. We’ve been sent here with a mandate to fix things. I’m out of my comfort zone here, but I’m voting yes.”

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