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Pawlenty unveils health plan

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's health care system would rely more on market-based solutions, and all but the smallest Minnesota employers would be required to provide access to it under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to fix the system.

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's health care system would rely more on market-based solutions, and all but the smallest Minnesota employers would be required to provide access to it under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to fix the system.

On Thursday, he unveiled his proposal for health care reform in the state - a multi-pronged plan that calls for modernization of a state health care program and establishes a nonprofit Health Insurance Exchange modeled after a Massachusetts program.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday outlined their health care package, which focuses strongly on providing greater access to coverage. Pawlenty was unabashed as he compared that goal with his plan.

"I'm not going to have a fixation on access when the system is overall broken," he said.

Governor's plan

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The governor said access is just part of the puzzle. He said his plan - dubbed "Healthy Connections" - achieves success in health care's three chief areas of concern: access, quality of care and cost containment.

"All three need to be addressed and this proposal does that," Pawlenty said.

In his plan, a private sector option for children called MinnesotaCare II is added to allow enrollees access to subsidized private care. That option - it would apply largely to less-needy participants, the governor said - supplements the current program, where Pawlenty plans to improve affordability.

But the plan would fall short of a goal he announced late last year in which he wanted to make sure all children had health insurance. On Thursday, he said that programs could not immediately expand to cover all children.

"You can't get there overnight," he said.

Participants would see savings through his proposal, Pawlenty said.

"They want it more economical," he said of users, who are growing tired of health care costs "dramatically outstripping the income."

And they want it better, he said. To achieve that, Pawlenty believes employees and employers will benefit from his Health Insurance Exchange.

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Employers with more than 10 employees would be required to open a tax shelter where employees would deposit pre-tax dollars. Those funds would then go to the exchange, where health care costs would be processed, Pawlenty explained.

The government-subsidized exchange serves as a virtual clearinghouse, where administrative functions are centralized through a private, nonprofit organization, according to Pawlenty.

Employees utilizing the exchange through group coverage could pay for services with pre-tax dollars, Pawlenty noted. Individual health insurance enrollees could purchase policies with pre-tax dollars.

In turn, the exchange would receive the pre-tax payments for health insurance premiums and make payments to health plans.

Views of DFLerSen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who is sponsoring the Senate health care bill, isn't sold on the concept of an exchange. The tax ramifications, she said, could lead to inflation.

"Holding down health care inflation is a concept we need to keep pushing on," Berglin said. "A lot of people won't be helped by the governor's proposal."

While her bill sets goals of universal health care coverage and premium caps, a House bill introduced on Monday prioritizes coverage for children.

Other facets of the governor's plan call for streamlining insurance codes to eliminate stratification between insurance companies' data systems.

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Incentives for providers are built into the Pawlenty plan, which looks to offer rewards for quality over quantity.

His plan would pay out more "for adherence to optimal standards," Pawlenty said.

While Pawlenty seemed optimistic that his plan and the Senate Democrats' could blend, Berglin said the opposite is more likely true. The things agreed upon between the two proposals, she said - primarily in reducing premiums - are "not the meat" of either plan.

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