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Local officials and residents preparing for a life without GAMC funds

WILLMAR -- There's a large collection of prescription medications on the countertop in Pix Erickson's small kitchen. The medications help the 54-year-old Willmar woman deal with back pain that makes even walking difficult.

"I've been going through hell for two years," said Erickson, wh-ile sitting in the mobilized electric chair she uses in her home. Erickson has been under the coverage of General Assistance Medical Care since August of 2008.

During an interview last month, Erickson said she was worried about paying for her medical care when the program disappears March 1.

"What's going to happen to me?" she asked.

In a sweeping move earlier this year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty eliminated the program when he cut $381 million funding as part of plan to reduce the state's looming debt.

Statewide, an estimated 36,000 low-income adults will be affected by the change.

In Kandiyohi County, the demise of the program will affect 365 people, said Sue Leal, financial assistance supervisor with Kandiyohi County Family Services.

The state-funded program provides medical care to adults, ages 21-64, who have no dependent children and are not eligible for a federal medical program.

General Assistance Medical Care is a safety net that provides care to individuals who make about $8,000 a year, are unable to find work, are unskilled or may be unemployable, said Leal. Many have a history of chronic mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

Recipients are "voiceless and powerless" people who are "living on the edge" and have no ability to pay for their own medical care, said Family Services Director Jay Kieft. "They are our poorest."

Kieft said he hopes legislators find some way to restore the program, at least partially.

Many clients of the program will be transferred to MinnesotaCare, the low-cost, state-funded insurance. Others may be eligible for federal programs.

State medical review teams from Department of Human Services will evaluate medical records of General Assistance Medical Care clients to determine if they are eligible for federally funded medical assistance programs, Leal said.

If they do not qualify, then the clients will automatically be enrolled in "transitional" MinnesotaCare -- for a period of one to six months depending on the individual case, said Leal. During that time, counties will pay the mandatory premiums for each client.

After that period, clients will have to submit a renewal form for the "traditional" MinnesotaCare and pay their own premiums, which could range from $4 to $8 a month. Unlike General Assistance Medical Care, MinnesotaCare also has a $10,000 hospitalization cap with a 10 percent co-pay.

Finding even $4 to pay a monthly premium will be impossible for many low-income clients, said Kieft.

As a result, some will stop going to the doctor and will stop taking their medications, accelerating a downward spiral.

Care funded by General Assistance Medical Care keeps chronically ill individuals stable, said Kieft. It also keeps them out of emergency rooms, out of hospitals, out of crisis mental health facilities and out of jails where expensive care is paid for by local hospitals, clinics and counties, he said.

Eliminating the program is like "cutting off your nose to spite your face," said Kieft. "Ultimately you're not saving any money.

Having grown up in poverty, Erickson said she was determined not to live off welfare. She said she worked for 37 years before pain made it impossible for her to return to the job.

Before she enrolled in General Assistance Medical Care, she said she'd exhausted all of her savings and was living on "the slippery slope" of credit cards. She may have to sell her home to get out of debt.

Erickson said she takes seven different medications a day. One costs $1,000 a month. She wonders how she'll pay for it once the program is gone.

"Between the stress and the pain, I'm functioning on one cylinder," said Erickson.

Leaving General Assistance Medical Care won't be painless, but Leal said clients like Erickson should have a little less to worry about now that there is a plan in place for how the state intends to move people to MinnesotaCare or a federal program.

"We'll try to find the best program for them," said Leal.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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