Minnesota delegation wary of proposed health care reformby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — President Barack Obama wants health care reform ready for his signature by the end of the summer, and it's at the top of the agenda in Congress right now. But lawmakers are deeply divided about the idea, and there's plenty of disagreement among Minnesota's Congressional delegation. Even Democrats differ about what should be done.
Here's a little secret you might not know about the health care reform being debated in Washington: Minnesota might not want it.
At least, that's how members of Congress from Minnesota are talking about the reform proposals on the table right now. They're not sure that the potential cures for the system - requiring everyone to have insurance, expanding Medicare or taxing health benefits - won't be worse than what currently ails health care.
"They're trying to put a tax on people, so that they can keep the existing system going, and then add some more cost to it," said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota's 7th Congressional District. "And it doesn't need to be done. There is enough money in the system to make this work.
"What they're talking about doing here is just adding some more gasoline to the fire that's going to burn down this country. And I'm not going to go along with that."
Peterson's a Democrat, and he's for health care reform. Like most members of Congress, he thinks more people should be covered and that health insurance is too expensive.
There are a number of ideas to fix that. One is a legal mandate that everybody should have insurance, and the government would subsidize people who can't afford it. Democrat Tim Walz represents southern Minnesota, and said that idea may have some merit.
"You're mandated to have car insurance, because if you don't, the cost to those that are paying for it is going to be tremendous," Walz said. "So right now, by not having people on insurance, they show up at the emergency room, and they may not personally pay. But we all do, and the whole system pays."
Most members of Minnesota's delegation think some kind of health mandate is a good idea. But just telling people they have to get insurance doesn't fix the problem, if they don't have the money to pay for it.
That's where second idea comes in. The so-called public option, where government pays for the insurance for those who can't afford it.
Trouble is we already have something like that, for seniors and people with disabilities -- Medicare. And members of Congress from Minnesota agree that it's a bad deal for the state.
The Mayo Clinic, for instance, provides world-class care, but gets half the Medicare payments doctors get in Miami.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that's because Medicare pays for what doctors do, not how well it works.
"Uniformly, you see the Congressional delegation in Minnesota very focused on that Medicare reform, because we tend to do it right," Klobuchar said. "We focus on outcomes; we have the model for how you can do this better. The problem is a lot of our taxpayer money is being sucked down to other states that are not doing it nearly as efficiently."
That's a point on which Klobuchar and 6th District Republican Michele Bachmann agree. Bachmann also said Medicare sets a bad precedent and that it needs to be fixed first.
"Medicare is expected to go broke in eight years, and it seems to me we should be focusing on that public option, instead of making the decision to add more people who aren't paying for health care and charge people who are already paying for health care even more," Bachmann said.
Bachmann and her fellow Republicans oppose the idea of a wider public option. Democrats range from Betty McCollum, who said the state-run Minnesota Care program is a pragmatic compromise, to Keith Ellison.
"I think we should have a single-payer system," Ellison said.
Democrat Keith Ellison said that's the way to fix Medicare's problems and cover everyone.
"It should consist of one insurer, established by the government, to keep administrative costs low and ensure a high standard of care," he said.
He and other Democrats, including Klobuchar, also said an income tax on wealthy Americans could help pay for reform, whatever it turns out to be.
However, Republicans say adding money to the system won't cut costs. Bachmann said a tax deduction for health insurance premiums would help. Erik Paulsen, who represents the 3rd District, has other ideas.
"There's a lot we can do to lower costs, in the areas of allowing small businesses to pool together to offer health insurance to their employees," Paulsen said. "Encouraging state-centered insurance market reforms, giving low income families the option to use public funds to purchase private health care plans, as well as making sure we have medical malpractice reform so that frivolous lawsuits don't continue to drive up medical costs."
So while Minnesotans in Congress say something needs to be done about health care, they're leery that changes will look too much like existing federal programs.
If Medicare can't be fixed first, they say, there's little chance of larger reform.
- Morning Edition, 07/14/2009, 7:25 a.m.