Minnesota Senate moves health care amendment

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The Minnesota Senate has taken the first steps toward guaranteeing health care for all Minnesotans, but similar legislation faces an uncertain future in the House. The Senate committee vote came after citizens called on the state to act because health care costs are spinning out of control and more and more people are losing coverage.

“Our health care system is broken and it needs fixing,” said Sue Eichstadt, a Machinists union member who walked from Windom to the state Capitol last fall to dramatize the need for action.

Eichstadt was among many people who testified Thursday before the state Senate Health and Family Security Committee, which approved two bills – S.F. 2625 sponsored by Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, and S.F. 2468 sponsored by John Marty, DFL-Roseville – that call for a statewide vote to amend the Minnesota Constitution to make health care a guaranteed right. Marty’s bill also would create a temporary working group to design a universal health care system that expands coverage and controls costs while maintaining consumer choice.

Neither bill has a House sponsor yet. In addition, the committee approved S.F. 2725, the “Senate DFL Health Care Package,” that falls short of guaranteeing coverage but would expand the state’s health program, MinnesotaCare, to more people.

Supporters of the three pieces of legislation range from organized labor and community organizations to the Minnesota Hospital Association and groups representing health care professionals. A chief opponent is the Minnesota Business Partnership, whose representative testified in support of “a market-based, patient-centered system.”

Many of those who spoke, however, said the market isn’t doing the job. Jerry Fallos, former president of United Steelworkers Local 4108, described the devastation caused when LTV Corporation abruptly shut down its Iron Range taconite plant – stranding 3,500 workers and thousands more family members without health care coverage.

“I literally heard thousands of horror stories” about people going without care because they did not have insurance, Fallos said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re old, young or middle-aged – it affects everybody.”

Bob Salisbury provides health insurance for the handful of people he employs at his dog-boarding business in Sauk Rapids, but said it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a small business to provide coverage. He noted that even large corporations are cutting health care benefits or raising rates to the point that they’re not affordable to most workers.

“It seems like the new world order is that people should not expect to be covered by health care. I reject that,” he said. “I am going to try to cover my employees with health care as long as I can.”

With a guaranteed right to health care, everyone would pay into the system and that would help small businesses like his, Salisbury said.

Both the Berglin and Marty bills would put a constitutional question on the ballot this November to amend the Minnesota Constitution to guarantee every resident the right to health care. Berglin’s plan requires the Legislature to enact legislation to implement that right by July 1, 2008; Marty’s deadline is Jan. 1, 2010.

“Back in the 1800s, when public education was added as a right to our Constitution, it was a very controversial idea,” Berglin noted, adding that today that right is generally accepted. “Health care is similar (to education) in that people cannot be productive, taxpaying citizens without their health.”

While championing the amendment, Berglin also is pushing legislation to take advantage of a projected $122 million surplus in the state’s Health Care Access Fund to expand MinnesotaCare to cover more self-employed farmers and single adults and to allow small employers to participate – all on a sliding fee scale.

At a news conference, Karla Swenson, an uninsured Roseville resident who works two jobs, described hearing loss and other health problems that are going untreated because she lacks insurance. “It’s very frustrating to work so much – 50 to 60 hours a week – and not be able to afford health care,” she said.

Dairy farmer Collin Boser, a single parent with four children, cannot afford health insurance but doesn’t qualify for MinnesotaCare because the depreciation on his farm and equipment is counted as income. That would change under the proposed legislation, which also would raise the cap on payments to hospitals for treatment of MinnesotaCare patients. The $10,000-per-patient cap was adopted when the program was created in 1993 and has never been raised.

House Republicans offered their own plan Thursday, proposing to eliminate the health care fee paid by small businesses into the state fund, encourage the use of health savings accounts and allow for-profit HMOs to operate in Minnesota.

Berglin said Senate DFLers would consider the Republican proposals, but added, “I don’t think the people of Minnesota believe that making health care for-profit is going to reduce their premiums . . . It’s just going to generate some higher profits to CEOs and upper management.”

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