Politician, Heal Thyself!

It is less expensive, not to mention more compassionate, to ensure that as many people as possible have health insurance. This is not a political debating point so much as an economic reality, proven by a long line of studies both national (May 2004, Kaiser Family Foundation: www.kff.org/uninsured/7084.cfm) and local (December 2003, the State Health Access Data Assistance Center: www.shadac.org/publications//issues.asp). That verity has become a particularly stubborn fact for Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his pretension that the quality of life in Minnesota won't suffer if he continues to starve state government services.

Two years ago, in the course of whacking a billion dollars out of the state's health and human services budget, Pawlenty threw an estimated 38,000 people off of Minnesota's state-supported health-insurance rolls. Last week, in testimony before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, a representative from the Minnesota Hospital Association revealed the inevitable result of that action. In 2004, the cost borne by hospitals for treating uninsured patients, known as "uncompensated care," rose at least $329 million over the previous year.

That number exceeds the $264 million in annual "savings" Pawlenty created through his various cuts, co-payments, and curbs in eligibility for enrollment in three state-supported health insurance plans.

Faced with the seemingly intractable problem of rising health care costs, Pawlenty did what all politicians do--he appointed a commission to study the problem. Unfortunately for Pawlenty, the task force, chaired by former Republican U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, took its job seriously. The panel ultimately recommended a dollar-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax, to help the state reach the goal of underwriting "universal participation" in health care coverage.

Pawlenty's national reputation as a no-tax politician precluded him from adopting this prescription for lowering health care costs. Ignoring the task force, his latest budget proposal instead opts to throw another 41,000 Minnesotans off of state-supported health coverage, and deny $51 million in Medicaid payments to hospitals. Because Medicaid is a federal matching reimbursement program, the state will be forfeiting $51 million in federal funds. As with this year's uncompensated care costs, hospitals will recoup that $100-million loss by raising private insurance premiums and, in the case of public hospitals such as HCMC, hitting up local property-tax payers.

Knowing that his draconian proposal can't stand on its economic merits, Pawlenty has chosen to sully those using state-supported health insurance, calling it "welfare health care." But thousands of people on these programs are workers whose employers don't offer health insurance because of its expense. Ironically, under Pawlenty's proposal, one of the ways Minnesotans can retain health coverage is by impoverishing themselves, essentially becoming welfare clients.

By the way, Minnesota taxpayers underwrite the health insurance coverage for Pawlenty, his wife, and his two children. Some forms of "welfare health care" are apparently more acceptable than others.

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