See You In Court

Five years ago Mike Hatch was just another failed politician. Then a dying woman walked into his office, and a crusade was born.

The worst were the nights before a court hearing. As Mike Hatch lay in bed, eyes wide open, his mind would churn over details, struggling to banish the knowledge that in the morning he would be fighting for somebody's life. Unless he could convince a judge to rule against a health-insurance company, his client would die in a matter of months. Failure would be permanent.

When the desperate people first came through his office door, Hatch would exude a calm confidence purposely designed to inspire hope. Still boyish in his 40s, with a slight physique and delicate hands, he had always worked hard to be taken seriously. During his career in politics--as chair of the DFL Party, state commerce commissioner, and gubernatorial candidate--he had developed a reputation for overweening arrogance and ambition; now his agile intellect and caustic tongue were earning him large fees as a lawyer on complex corporate cases.

On the days and nights immediately preceding a health-insurance hearing, however, Hatch was flooded with self-doubt of a kind neither his friends nor foes would have considered possible. "The two or three days before the argument are just awful," he says now, softly, sitting in the plush, spacious confines of his new office at the state Capitol. "It is not even like adrenaline is carrying you--it is fear. It is absolute fear." His voice thickens and he stares at the floor.

Dawn Villella

"It is fear that you are going to lose the case. You've got somebody's life in your hands and you don't know if you are the one who ought to be doing this. It is fear that I'm not good enough, not smart enough, that somebody else should be here. But nobody does it--nobody does it." Hatch repeats the phrase with a gust of emotion that is equal parts fury and bewilderment.

"You get bitter. You hear lawyers talk about going down South to do these death-row cases, and what a moving emotional experience it is. But you try walking into a courtroom with a dying woman who should be in the hospital getting treatment. She didn't murder anybody. Her crime was that she bought an insurance policy that turned out to be a lottery ticket. That's not fair.

"You get to the point where you don't even celebrate winning. I remember one, the family was ecstatic, and I walked out of the courtroom and got in the car just dreading it, knowing that we had two more cases in the file. Because sooner or later,"--Minnesota's attorney general labors to hold back tears--"you know you are going to lose."

Suddenly, Hatch releases a big sigh and raises his head again. "But that's why I'm here. The people didn't elect me because they thought I was going to fix potholes. This is my issue. And I can't tell you how much I look forward to following through with it."

 

Minnesota's election night 1998 will forever be remembered for Jesse Ventura, the grappler/grunt who "shocked the world" with his triumphant campaign for the state's highest office. Since the election, Ventura has served up colorful bits of unorthodoxy (the book deal, the rock inaugural, the gun permit) while charting a middling political course that would draw yawns coming from a more traditional public servant. Meanwhile, Hatch, an erstwhile party insider whom Ventura might call a "career politician," is preparing to do battle with some of the

state's most politically powerful institutions--managed-care companies like Allina, HealthPartners, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Preferred One.

According to a study by the advocacy group Minnesota COACT, those "Big Four" covered 80 percent of Minnesotans with health insurance in 1994; at the time, only California had a greater share of its population in managed-care plans than Minnesota. The concept of managed care itself is considered by many to have originated here; its godfather was Paul Ellwood, a neurologist who coined the term after practicing at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis.

Unlike traditional "fee-for-service" insurers, managed-care companies tightly control the fees paid to doctors and the services provided by them. Once hailed as the best hope for the nation's health-care system, those practices have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with newspapers and politicians routinely citing horror stories of sick people denied coverage.

While campaigning for AG, Hatch tapped into that discontent, announcing that reining in managed care companies would be his top priority if he were elected. Specifically, he claimed that managed-care insurers were exercising undue influence over the doctor-patient relationship by rewarding physicians for saving money and issuing vague, blanket definitions about which treatments are "experimental" and which are "medically necessary." Running almost exclusively on the health-care issue, Hatch defeated DFL endorsee Ember Reichgott Junge and former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug in the primary, amassing more statewide votes than any other DFLer running last year.

The day after the primary, Republican AG candidate Charlie Weaver--who in the previous months had received some $40,000 in campaign contributions from lobbyists and PACs associated with HMOs, according to reports filed with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board--declared that the race was "between someone who thinks [managed-care plans] are the most dangerous things facing Minnesotans and someone who thinks a kid with a gun is the most dangerous thing facing Minnesotans." Hatch, for his part, went into the general election with TV commercials devoted exclusively to testimonials from people he had represented in fights with health insurers. On Election Day, with his vote total running about 20 points higher than that of gubernatorial candidate and fellow DFLer Skip Humphrey's, Hatch became the only DFLer elected to statewide office.

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