A monumental piece of legislation is being considered in state legislative chambers this spring, one that could positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans. It could pass as proposed, crash in flames, or assume virtually any shape in between, depending on the willingness of its potential beneficiaries to become involved.
The legislation, simply enough, would have the effect of shifting the availability of health care from a privilege of those who can afford it to a right of those who need it.
It is not a new idea, nor is it a proposal impulsively made.
In their currently-considered form, the proposed bills now being examined by a series of Minnesota House and Senate committees reflect the findings of the Minnesota Health Care Access Commission, created by the legislature to assess both the scope of the problem and the range of realistic solutions.
Over a period of 15 months, the Commission was formed, consultants recruited, hearings held in 19 locations, actuarial and legal research conducted, and surveys taken among 1100 employers and some 10,000 Minnesotans.
The findings were shocking: 11,000 Minnesotans refused health care in the last year alone because they lacked health insurance; 50,000 who delayed seeking care for infections, chest pains and other potentially serious conditions for the same reason; 370,000 totally uninsured; 900,000 covered by small businesses, but vulnerable to unpredictable premium increases and cancellation or severe limitations due to pre-existing conditions; businesses crying out for premium relief.
A third of uninsured Minnesotans have unpaid medical bills averaging over $800.
It is a problem that extends far beyond those saddled with the debt; the situation directly affects the physicians and hospitals who aren’t being paid for their services, in this case to the tune of over $150 million dollars.
The Minnesota Health Care Access Commission recognized the scope of the problem, and said “Universal Health Insurance” in no uncertain terms in their presentation to the Appropriations Committee’s Human Resources Division early last month.
Its recommendations – now in the form of a single bill (SF 2) in the Senate and five bills (HF 2-7) in the House – included:
1. Establishment of a new state agency
2. A ceiling on all health care spending
3. A new health care program for the uninsured and underinsured.
4. A requirement that all Minnesotans have health coverage
5. Two new health coverage benefit packages
6. A new Health Care Analysis Unit
7. A Rural Health Advisory Committee
8. Community rating of premiums
9. A reinsurance pool for high cost cases
10. Minimum benefit requirements for coverage sold in the state
Co-authored, as of Feb.l, by some 48 state Senators and 79 members of the Minnesota House, the bills have passed their initial legislative tests, but the pitched battles are soon to get underway.
Passed unscathed out of chief author Sen. Linda Berglin’s Health and Human Services Committee on February 18, the Senate version travels next to that body’s Commerce Committee, though no date has been set. After Commerce, the gauntlet will include Government Operations, Appropriations and Tax committees, according to Commission staffer Cindy Orbovich. The house versions will undergo similar scrutiny.
While dates have yet to be set for the series of debates, the bills are due out of all policy committees by April 24. Up or down, this IS the session in which the health care access question will be considered by the full legislative body, according to Orbovich .
And where does the voter come in? By making the task of constituent-preference analysis easy for both co-authors of the bill and those in the legislature who must stand up and be counted, one way or the other. By writing or phoning not only their own legislator, but offering encouragement to those who’ve stood up for universal health care in the face of boisterous conservative opposition, and counsel to those who have not.
Orbovich cautions that opposition to the bill’s various measures will stiffen as pragmatic considerations – such as funding sources and alternative expenditures – are addressed. But it is not, she said, “just a big money bill”. Instead, it is an assembly of provisions, any number of whom could be supported individually. She urges those who stand to benefit from any of those provisions to contact those in a position to bring those benefits home.
For information on the bill, or a schedule of hearings, voters are invited to call 297-5980.