When It Comes to Health Care, Gov. Pawlenty Should Lead or Get Out of the Way

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If nature abhors a vacuum, then it has to hate what’s going on with the governor and health care. What we’re witnessing in St. Paul is a vacuum of leadership to address arguably the biggest challenge facing the state today.

With mounting pressure for progressive health care reform, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to engage is becoming the obvious obstacle to affordable health care.

The governor recently informed the heads of the Minnesota House and Senate Health & Human Services Finance Committees that he was no longer supporting health care reform this session.

He again blamed the state’s budget woes, saying there wasn’t enough money in the coffers to address the issue, at least when it comes to expanding care. Of course, this came a couple of weeks after his budget-balancing proposal raided the Health Care Access Fund to make up for sagging state tax revenues.

The governor later backed away from his backing away from his stated commitment to health care reform, but what we’re seeing is an all-too familiar pattern from this administration. It sees a problem, says it wants to fix it, appoints a task force to study the problem and come up with possible solutions — and then ignores the recommendations and falls back on the old excuse that there’s not enough money in the budget to fix it.

We’ve seen it with education, energy, the environment, transportation and now, for a second time, health care. Pawlenty’s original health care task force, headed by former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, recommended, among other things, paying for health care reforms with a cigarette tax. Pawlenty ignored the reforms and used the cigarette tax – which he called “a health assessment fee” – to balance a different budget deficit.

This isn’t the kind of leadership we need on this vital issue. Recently, Families USA reported that three working-age Minnesotans die every week due to lack of health insurance. The report attributed that to the uninsured delaying or forgoing care until their ailments reach a critical stage. For example, uninsured women are substantially more likely to be diagnosed with advanced breast cancer than women with private insurance, so it’s no surprise that the disease is more often fatal for the uninsured.

This isn’t a problem just for the uninsured. Health care costs are skyrocketing for the 90-plus percent of Minnesotans with health insurance. Meanwhile, the quality of care for many is getting worse.

What’s frustrating about the governor’s refusal to lead on this issue is that there’s growing momentum and consensus on what needs to be done. For the past year, members of the governor’s own Health Care Transformation Task Force have been meeting to develop legislation to address these issues. The members represent a broad spectrum of interests, including big corporations like General Mills, small Main Street businesses, unions, health care professionals, patients and legislators.

We need progressive health solutions focused on efforts such as reducing smoking and obesity, reductions in administrative costs and improvements in care delivery to bring down the price of health insurance and make it more affordable for everyone.

Last week, health care leaders in the Minnesota House brought together a diverse group of representatives from business, the health care industry, nonprofits and unions to say that reform is not only possible, but vital this session. Leaders in both houses of the Legislature continue to say they’re committed to passing reform this year.

That’s a good start, but it lacks a critical element: Gov. Pawlenty.

The one road block is the governor, although to be fair he’s going to be little more than a speed bump on this issue because the demand for change is too strong. It’s too bad, because real leadership from the governor on this issue could make a big difference in the lives of a lot of Minnesotans.

At the very least, he should heed the words of Lee Iacocca and “lead, follow or get out of the way.”

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