Minnesota's universal health care push picks up a new allyby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota health insurers gained a powerful ally this week in their push for universal coverage in the state. America's Health Insurance Plans, a national insurance industry trade group, introduced an ambitious proposal to extend health insurance to more than 40 million Americans. The plan would expand public programs and subsidies, and would cost an estimated $300 billion dollars over ten years. Minnesota insurers say the national proposal adds considerable momentum to their upcoming legislative campaign for universal coverage.
St. Paul, Minn. — A dozen years ago, the insurance industry was a leading force in derailing the Clinton administration's universal health coverage plan.
But times have changed.
"We recognize we have a responsibility as a significant player in this system to offer solutions, to not just say no, to not be an impediment to reform, but to be part of the solution," says Michael Tuffin, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans.
Tuffin says his organization's proposal calls on federal lawmakers to expand eligibility for public programs like Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. It extends medical pre-tax benefits to families and individuals not covered through an employer-based health plan. The proposals would also establish a tax credit for low income families who insure their children. And it creates a new $50 billion Federal Performance Grant.
Tuffin says the grant money would go to states who insure all their citizens within a set time frame.
"We think you can pretty much get to universal coverage within 10 years and that you can get to universal coverage among kids within three years."
Minnesota's universal coverage advocates say the proposal presents the state with an opportunity.
"I think that other than the time frames, the rest of the framework would really align quite well with what we want to do here," says Donna Zimmerman, Vice President for Government and Community Relations at HealthPartners.
Zimmerman says Minnesota is in great shape to cash in on the proposal's performance grants because the state already has one of the lowest uninsured rates in the nation. But Zimmerman also thinks Minnesota should set its goals higher than the national plan's.
"It takes 10 years to cover all adults. I think that's too slow for Minnesota because we have fewer uninsured, we should move more quickly. So we shouldn't really look at those time frames as being time frames that we would want to follow here in our state."
Time frames aside, the bigger issue is whether Minnesota lawmakers agree that universal coverage should be a goal for the state. Until recently, there has been little common ground on this issue between Democrats and Republicans.
But that could be changing. This week Gov. Pawlenty announced that he now supports the idea of insuring all of the state's children. That was a big surprise to state Democrats who have pushed the proposal unsuccessfully in past sessions.
The next Speaker of the House, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, says it's clear interest is growing among politicians to do more to help the uninsured, particularly children.
"We think that's a sign that should give Minnesotans hope that this is going to be a very productive legislative session and (we're) pleased that the governor is taking us up on that idea because. It's one that we think is central to helping expand health coverage in Minnesota."
For their part insurers are hoping that legislators insure more than just children. That of course will require a lot more money. A few months ago Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota released a policy white paper suggesting the state could cover all of its uninsured for about $900 million dollars a year. But the Blue Cross analysis didn't factor in possible federal subsidies.
The company's Public Policy Director Cindy Goff says if Congress adopts all of the proposals put forth by America's Health Insurance Plans, Minnesota could get a lot of federal support to help cover its uninsured citizens.
"We think that with the new makeup of Congress, as well as the new makeup of the state legislature, there's a lot of potential for a lot of progress to be made in some of these areas and so we're really looking forward to the conversation," she says.
If health insurers seem impatient to tackle universal coverage, it could be that they are aware that there are other ideas about how to solve the uninsured problem, including proposals that would create a single payer government-run system. Goff says her industry would like a chance to prove first that a private-public partnership on universal coverage can work.