Will governor and lawmakers find common ground to insure all kids?by Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Gov. Pawlenty and legislators agree this is the year to deal with providing universal health insurance coverage to all Minnesota kids. Not all of their proposals are in yet, so there's still plenty of room for disagreement on the particulars. Their early optimism about the idea indicates some form of coverage for uninsured kids is possible this legislative session.
St. Paul, Minn. — Key DFL health committee leaders know better than to say covering uninsured kids is a done deal. But Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, comes close.
"This is really the year we can get this done," says Thissen.
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis seems to agree.
"I believe we are going to get something done," she says.
Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, appears even more convinced.
"I'm sure that we will cover all kids in some form," says Huntley.
Huntley, Thissen and Berglin all chair important health policy and budget committees. Thissen is also chief author of a bill called the Children's Health Security Act.
Thissen's bill would initially raise eligibility for the state's MinnesotaCare program to 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines. That means a family of four earning $60,000 a year or less would qualify for coverage for their kids.
The bill would also make it easier for them to enroll by eliminating paperwork. Later on it would open up MinnesotaCare to all kids, regardless of income, even if their parents qualify for private employer-based coverage.
Thissen doesn't have a price tag for his bill yet. But he says it would cost somewhere in the low hundreds of millions of dollars per year to get started.
Thissen has introduced the bill without success each of the past three sessions. But this year he senses new support for his idea. So he's making some last-minute revisions to his proposal, in a bid to get as many lawmakers on board as possible.
"I think this year as we kind of look to what we can accomplish in this session, we'll focus on phase 1 and getting children hopefully up to 300 percent of poverty covered in Minnesota," says Thissen.
He suspects the election has a lot to do with lawmakers' renewed interest in health care reform. Thissen thinks voters sent a message that it's time to fix the system and provide coverage for the state's growing uninsured population, which includes 75,000 kids. Some of those kids became uninsured after lawmakers cut the MinnesotaCare budget in 2003, reducing eligibility for an estimated 20,000 children.
Thissen's bill is backed by about 40 faith and social justice groups, including Children's Defense Fund Minnesota. The organization held dozens of heath care forums throughout the state leading up to the election, encouraging voters to push for health insurance reform. Forum leaders are now turning their attention directly to lawmakers post-election.
At a recent legislative strategy session, Executive Director Jim Koppel rallied coalition members.
"Number one, we have a receptive House," said Koppel, "we have a different atmosphere."
About 20 supporters cheered and applauded.
Last year this coalition helped get 40 lawmakers to sign on to Thissen's bill as coauthors. That's about 20 percent of the Legislature.
"We plan to double that this year," says Koppel. "We're going to go back in there, we have a lot of new legislators, both Senate and House members, many of whom we know ran on the fact that they were going to address health care for children."
The Children's Health Security Act already has a chief author in the Senate. But Senate leaders also expect to create their own proposal to insure more kids.
Health and Human Services Budget Chair Linda Berglin says her caucus will probably suggest expanding coverage for a somewhat smaller number of kids. It's not that Berglin opposes Thissen's bill. She's just not sure lawmakers are ready to pay for it.
"I'd be delighted if it can pass," says Berglin. "But I am not sensing people are looking to run out the door with a proposal that's going to cause us to have a tax increase. I think we can do a lot without going as far as a tax increase."
Berglin says about $180 million of surplus money remains in the Health Care Access Fund that the state could use to insure more kids and low-income adults who were cut from MinnesotaCare in recent years. She thinks the Senate's plan will try to work within that budget.
These proposals are not exactly what Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota had in mind when it issued its policy white paper in September, showing how the state could get to universal coverage.
"Our preference would be that we'd start with coverage for all," says Colleen Reitan, President and COO of Blue Cross Blue Shield.
But Reitan agrees that proposals to cover kids are a good start down the path to universal coverage.
"We recognize that you need to start somewhere. And so we're looking forward to great movement this year, and hopefully being able to finish the job to cover all Minnesotans as well," says Reitan.
Gov. Pawlenty appears to agree too. The governor has said publicly he would like to insure all Minnesotans eventually, but that it makes sense to start by insuring kids first. He hasn't released details of his health care proposal yet. The governor's budget is due to be released by Jan. 23, 2007.
- All Things Considered, 12/29/2006, 5:19 p.m.