Group staging protest of GAMC eliminationby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A group of low-income people and advocates will stage a "never-ending emergency room waiting line" outside of the Hennepin County Medical Center on Wednesday, to protest the elimination of General Assistance Medical Care.
St. Stephen's Human Services organized the protest to demand reinstatement of funding for GAMC, a program that currently provides health insurance coverage for about 33,000 adults who cannot access other assistance. Gov. Tim Pawlenty used unallotment to cut the program's funding earlier this year. The Department of Human Services estimates that GAMC will run out of funds by March 1.
Low-income advocates also hope the protest will call attention to flaws in the plan to switch GAMC enrollees to Minnesota Care. Current GAMC enrollees will be automatically switched to the state plan on March 1. After that date, people seeking to apply for GAMC will need to apply for Minnesota Care instead.
"I think a lot of people who aren't actively working on the issue think the problem's been solved," said Cathy Heying, advocacy coordinator for St. Stephen's Human Services.
The two plans have several key differences.
Minnesota Care has an annual $10,000 limit on inpatient hospital care, with a 10 percent co-payment. GAMC has no inpatient hospital care limit and no co-payments for inpatient stays.
Unlike GAMC, Minnesota Care also has a monthly premium, calculated on a sliding scale based on income, starting at $4 a month. Enrollees will be given a several month grace period, but will then need to make payments to keep their coverage.
Heying says she expects many people will lose coverage because of unpaid premiums.
"Many of the folks that we work with are transient because of being precariously housed or homeless," she said. "So, if they miss the paperwork that could seriously jeopardize their coverage."
Minnesota Care has a $3 co-payment for both generic and name brand medications. Under GAMC, enrollees pay $1 for generic medications and $3 for name brand medications. GAMC caps co-payments at $7 a month to keep costs down for people taking several medications. The plan also waives co-payments for several psychiatric medications.
Although the differences in premium expenses and co-payments might seem minimal, advocates say the costs could add up quickly for low-income adults.
Many GAMC enrollees are unemployed and survive on $203 in monthly welfare assistance. Under current GAMC coverage, a person who took 3 name brand medications and 2 generic medications would pay $7 a month.
If the same person enrolled in Minnesota Care, the medications would cost $15. The $4 monthly premium would bring costs to $19, or 9 percent of a single adult welfare recipient's total income.
"There's a reason they're not on Minnesota Care to begin with," said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "It's because they don't have the money to pay for these premiums. It's just not a program designed to help this group of people."
The protest has not been officially endorsed by HCMC, but a spokesperson said the hospital does not object to the event and has worked with organizers to plan the "waiting line" route.
"We're working really hard to make it clear that it's not a protest against HCMC," Heying said.