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Dems look to plug GAMC's hole

Minneapolis construction worker Al Phenow, left, tells reporters Thursday that without General Assistance Medical Care, he likely would not be able to be treated for arthritis. Also pictured is Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Democrats want to use federal money, force counties to pay more and divert other funds to restore health care coverage to Minnesota's poor.

A program known as General Assistance Medical Care is due to expire March 1 after Gov. Tim Pawlenty eliminated its funding to help balance the state budget. A Democratic plan released at a news conference Thursday would keep providing health care for the 70,000 adults earning less than $7,800 annually who now receive mostly free care via GAMC. Pawlenty would put most of them on MinnesotaCare, a state-run insurance program that requires premiums be paid.

Rep Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said the plan restores $292 million that Pawlenty cut, but admitted it remains "a work in progress."

Key to the plan is a scheme to raise a surcharge on hospitals and other health-care providers by $130 million in order to get a like amount of federal money.

The increased surcharge then would be repaid to the providers.

More than $100 million in payments to hospitals and other providers would be cut, with no repayments planned, Huntley said.

Counties would be forced to pay $20 million more for poor people's health care, as well as paying for all health care jail inmates receive. A variety of other existing funds also would be used for the plan, which would last through June 30, 2011. Huntley and other Democratic health leaders say a new federal health-care law should kick in then, providing coverage to poor Minnesotans who otherwise could not afford it.

The plan also would require people now receiving GAMC help to use federal programs if they are eligible.

Huntley, chairman of the House health finance committee, said Democrats' goal is to pass a health bill the first week of the 2010 legislative session, which begins Feb. 4.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, said that will happen only if Democrats work with Pawlenty to reach a compromise.

Pawlenty, speaking Thursday on a conference call from Chile, said he has doubts about the Democratic plan, especially increasing the surcharge just to get federal money. He and Dean said federal officials are taking a dim look at such schemes, although Huntley said he thinks it will fly.

If federal officials do not back the plan, Dean said, hospitals will suffer.

"It does put the onus back onto hospitals to prop up this program," Dean said.

Dean plans to introduce a GOP plan at a Monday committee hearing. He said it, too, would cover everyone now on GAMC, but would do it for less than the Democratic plan.

Figures Democrats prepared indicate their proposal would reduce payments to hospitals about half that of Pawlenty's plan to eliminate GAMC.


? Rice Memorial Hospital, Willmar, $770,000 under Pawlenty plan, $385,000 under DFL plan.

? Stevens Community Medical Center, Morris, $66,000 under Pawlenty plan, $33,000 under DFL plan.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.