A new public conversation about health care


Fifty Apple Valley residents gathered together on a rainy Tuesday evening last July at the Apple Valley Community Center to share their concerns about one of the most pressing issues now facing Minnesota families: the soaring cost of health care.

Participants reflected the population of the state. They were public employees, schoolteachers, owners of small businesses and employees of large ones. They included single college students, middle-aged parents, and retirees. Most had health insurance, a few did not. Those who gathered spent the evening sharing their personal stories and their concerns about the health care system in Minnesota.

The Apple Valley event was the fourth in a series of TakeAction Minnesota health care forums, one of a variety of public events that have brought over 2,500 community members together this year into a reemerging public conversation about the state of health care in Minnesota. Amidst this conversation, a common set of themes has begun to emerge:

The health care crisis in Minnesota is first and foremost a crisis of affordability. Health care costs in Minnesota are rising at a rate that far outpaces inflation or wages. Individuals are absorbing a disproportionate share of these cost increases in their own pocketbooks. High medical bills lurk behind many of the recent, harrowing stories of home foreclosures. Health care costs remain the most common cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States.

The lack of affordable care has become a constant refrain in hundreds of health care stories told by Minnesotans this year. Uninsured and underinsured alike describe postponed or skipped doctors’ appointments, unfilled prescriptions, and staggering medical debt. Fewer and fewer Minnesotans see themselves as immune from the rising cost of care. Even residents of comparatively wealthy communities frequently remark: “I can afford good medical care, but I have friends or family members who cannot.”

A profound sense of disempowerment pervades how Minnesotans feel about their interactions with the health care system. At a recent convening of over 500 Minnesotans concerned about health care, the group was asked how many felt “disempowered” in their most recent interaction with the health care system. Almost every hand in the room went up.

It is perhaps this feeling of disempowerment that has led more voters to believe that they need someone looking out for them in the health care arena. A recent national poll shows that most voters believe the government should play a greater role as a “rule-maker” and “watchdog” for the public in the health care arena. A recent SCHIP poll found that half of those voters who believed that an SCHIP expansion would increase the role of government in health care also believed that such an expansion would be a “good thing.”

Minnesotans are ready for a larger solution to the health care system. One of the most articulate participants in the Apple Valley health care forum was a young father of three who works for a small contractor. His daughter has a chronic health condition. His employer has continued to provide health insurance, despite double-digit premium increases, but the young father worries it may soon disappear. “I can’t solve this problem on my own,” he told fellow Apple Valley residents. “My family can’t solve this on our own. We need a bigger solution for all of us.”

Polls consistently show that well over two-thirds of voters – up to 90 percent in some polls – support comprehensive, affordable health care for all. Half of self-identified Republicans believe that “universal healthcare” should be a “right” of every American. Seventy percent of the national electorate would support affordable health care for all “even if it would mean raising (their) taxes.”

The health care problems Minnesotans face are urgent. Many of our state legislators are now deeply engaged in a promising set of discussions about what kind of changes in health care are needed. With health care now ranking as the top domestic issue facing the country, we can expect it to become even more central in 2008. We would encourage all of our elected leaders to join this growing public conversation about health care, and to consider bold solutions to make health care more affordable and responsive to all Minnesota families.