Austerity Forever

Health care took the most visible hits at the Legislature this year, and the future only looks bleaker: Linda Berglin, the only DFLer who stood and fought Pawlenty's cuts.

Berglin: I was surprised about the plan for the wholesale elimination of the MinnesotaCare program, which has a dedicated fund paid in part by the premiums of those enrolled in the program. We promised the health care providers that we would keep that revenue out of the general fund and that it would never be spent on schools or transportation or any of the host of other things that might be demanding money. We kept it separate so we could make sure working people could get health care. They are doing the right thing under very meager wages, paying a premium based on what they can afford, getting their good primary, preventive care and staying out of emergency rooms. And yet we were going to take that opportunity to do the right thing away from them. And for some of those people, we still are going to take that opportunity away from them.

CP: You were one of the founders of the MinnesotaCare program back in 1992, weren't you?

Berglin: Yes. We started with the parents of the children in what we called the Children's Health Plan. The next group we brought in were people without children. And we phased everybody in over a couple of years. And the program grew because in any program that you start, everybody doesn't enroll on the first day; there is word of mouth and you get your maturity for a program over a four-to-five-year period. It has been pretty stable since then. We have seen a little bit of increased enrollment over this last year, because of the economy. We have had a significant number of people who have lost their jobs and lost their health care with their jobs and are looking at MnCare as the responsible thing to do, so they don't end up in an emergency room. One has to assume that one of these years the economy will turn around and we won't need to have MnCare serve quite as many people.

But even with that increased enrollment, I had made sure in my budget that the program would be financially stable over these next four years, without making any eligibility cuts. It was just rhetoric when the administration said MinnesotaCare needs to get folded into the general fund because it is going to go bankrupt. That was a bunch of hogwash. They wanted the money from MnCare. They wanted to cut people off and put the money from that into the general fund to balance their budget deficit.

For the first four months of the legislative session, night and day, I was having meetings talking about finding money. When we cobbled it all together, [we saved] over $200 million. Most of it was finding ways to get matching federal dollars, or using our buying power to get reduced prices from drug companies and health care providers.

CP: So you had put together your budget for health, human services, and corrections using that $200 million in savings and about $500 million from the DFL's proposed cigarette tax. You were in conference committee to work out a compromise with the House, which had a budget similar to the governor's. Then the DFL leadership made this "global agreement" not to raise taxes. Were you a part of the group negotiating that agreement?

Berglin: No. I wish I had been. Next year I'll sleep in [Senate Majority Leader] John Hottinger's office at that time of the session. I was told that they thought it would take days to get an agreement worked out. So I thought, "This would be a good night to try and get some sleep then." I went home, fell asleep, got up the next day, and was supposed to have this little meeting with [Rep. Fran] Bradley [the lead Republican on the conference committee] at ten in the morning. Bradley was the one who gave me the news. I was so enraged.

I had to totally redo my budget to bring in a proposal that was $517 million less expensive. [Note: This was due to the DFL's agreement not to push a hike in cigarette taxes.] But I did it. And I didn't cut anybody's health care. I didn't take any federal dollars out of MFIP [the state welfare program] and leave people in that program destitute. I obviously had to make some cuts that I didn't make the first time around that I didn't enjoy making, to nursing homes, community-based services, and other areas. But all in all, it would have been enormously better than what we ended up with.

CP: What were the negotiations like after you redid your budget after the global agreement?

Berglin: I'd get called into this room with about 25 people, all of them Republicans except me, and they'd be screaming at me about how the global agreement requried me to get serious and adopt [the governor's] budget. Usually John Hottinger would be in the room for part of the time, but he would usually have to leave to go to a different meeting. Sometimes for moral support [Senator] Becky Loury was there with me and a couple of nights [Senator] Linda Higgins was with me. For quite a while during these discussion sessions, [the Republicans] were talking about the money they wanted to take from MinnesotaCare. They kept saying, "When you agreed to the governor's budget numbers, you agreed to take $191 million out of MinnesotaCare because that is what's in the governor's budget." And I kept saying, "I never proposed taking one dime out of MinnesotaCare in any proposal I ever made, including the one I have now, which meets the governor's number." They thought that without any [new tax] revenue that I would cave. But I wasn't about to cave.

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