Health care issues top priority for Senator

Supported by fellow Democrats, Berglin hopes to decrease the number of uninsured.

by Mike Enright

With Minnesota’s uninsured population on the rise, especially among 18- to 24-year-olds, members of both political parties pledged during the recent campaign to improve the state’s health-care system.

In the November elections, the DFL captured the state House for the first time in eight years, while the party increased its majority in the state Senate.

Those victories will give DFLers more bargaining power in negotiations with re-elected Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. And party leaders said reforming health care will be a top priority.

This week, the Daily sat down with Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, chairwoman of the Finance Committee’s Health and Human Services Budget Division, to talk about how the Legislature might address the issue in the 2007 session.

What are some of the biggest problems plaguing health care in Minnesota today?

The cost of health care keeps going up much faster than the rate of general inflation, and it means people can afford less and less, and more and more people are without health care coverage. We have an increasing number of uninsured, and my goal is to reduce the number of uninsured.

How do DFLers plan to address the health care issue?

I don’t presume to speak for the caucus, but I can tell you what we’ve done in the past. We’ve tried to have a way for small businesses to buy into MinnesotaCare (the state-run subsidized health insurance program) if they haven’t had insurance for their employees for the last year.

We have tried to expand eligibility for people who have children because, with the MinnesotaCare program today, if you work in a full-time, $7-an- hour job you can’t get in; you make too much money.

One of the things we have worked on for about 40 years now is making sure we get better measuring and reporting on outcomes. So, in other words, if you have diabetes, when you went in to see the doctor, did you get all the things you were supposed to get?

Ever since MinnesotaCare was created, we’ve had a committee working on uniform billing. We believe that, if we could get everyone working on the same billing forms, we would have a tremendous reduction in paperwork and administrative costs. We also have been supporting electronic medical records.

We have asked for accountability in terms of the health care companies and health plans by placing caps on the premium increases they would be allowed Ö So, those are the things we’ve done in the past, and I expect we’ll see more of the same this session.

Will the results from the Nov. 7 elections make it more likely measures will get approved this year that haven’t been in the past?

A lot more of it is going to get to the governor’s desk. In the past, we couldn’t even get out of conference committee.

Gov. Pawlenty recently said he is in favor of funding universal health care for children in Minnesota. What do you think of his new position and how does that fit into Democrats’ plans?

I just had a meeting on Wednesday with someone from the Governor’s staff, and the details of their proposal are not available. So it’s very hard for me to comment without having the details. I can tell you what my concerns would be.

My concerns would be mandating that people have health insurance on their children and then the health insurance they can get is either not very good or it’s not affordable to them. Then it looks like we did something good, but really we didn’t do a very good job. It’s kind of like putting a patch on a tire, when it really needed to be retreaded.

What is the DFL Party’s stance on universal care for children?

The proposal we had last year was that all kids could come into MinnesotaCare without barriers. And that means regardless of whether they have employer insurance offered to them, and without a four-month waiting period. We thought that would make more affordable care available to kids.

How will you solve the extra cost of bringing more people into MinnesotaCare?

We had a surplus in the MinnesotaCare fund last year of $120 million. And, even when the money was available, we couldn’t get the Republicans to talk about how we should expand health care. The best I did was to make sure they didn’t spend it on anything else.

There will be money available in the health access fund, and it should have grown because we didn’t spend it last year. So we should have last year’s money plus this year’s money in the fund to address some of these concerns.

It’s estimated there are currently between 60,000 and 90,000 uninsured children in the state. Is there enough money to provide insurance for all of them?

It depends on how you go about doing it. We had enough money to cover kids doing what we wanted to do. But if you’re going to mandate every child have coverage and every child gets a subsidy from the state, I’m not sure you’re going to have enough money.