Deal reached to extend health plan for poor

Published 9:22 am Saturday, March 6, 2010

Legislative Democrats and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty struck a deal Friday to preserve state-run health care for more than 30,000 vulnerable adults, hours before state officials planned to begin switching patients into a less comprehensive health plan.

The agreement will maintain the General Assistance Medical Care program at about a quarter of its current funding level. The reduction will hurt hospitals and other medical providers, but patients who live on less than $8 a day — including veterans, addicts, the homeless and the mentally ill — will get needed care.

The negotiators acknowledged their compromise wasn’t perfect.

Email newsletter signup

“Is this ideal compared to what? Compared to their plan, compared to our plan? That’s what we were choosing between, not some idealized notion of whether anybody would like in a perfect world,” Pawlenty said at a news conference with top Democrats.

“We’ve triaged GAMC. We’ve made sure that the enrollees can get the care that they need,” said Rep. Erin Murphy, a Democrat from St. Paul.

The deal came as negotiations were under increasing pressure.

The House failed Monday to override Pawlenty’s veto of a bill that would have continued the program. Three patients who rely on General Assistance Medical Care sued to stop the changes Thursday, but earlier Friday, Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin decided against stepping into the dispute.

General Assistance Medical Care had been scheduled to end April 1. Pawlenty intended to transfer the patients into the MinnesotaCare program for the working poor, which requires premiums and co-payments and offers limited hospital coverage.

Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman called off plans to begin switching the patients early Saturday.

Under the new agreement, General Assistance Medical Care will morph into a program focused on paying hospitals to coordinate care for the patients, with the goal of aggressively managing their conditions to avoid hospitalization and other costly services when possible.

Starting in June, safety-net hospitals designated as “coordinating care organizations” will receive state money to cover the cost of care and prescription drugs. The spending totals $116 million through the middle of 2011.

Pawlenty said that amount adds to a projected $994 million budget deficit, but said lawmakers agreed to find other spending cuts in health and welfare programs.

The deal also taps a fund tied to MinnesotaCare for $48 million to cover the General Assistance Medical Care patients in April and May and to reimburse hospitals that don’t get coordinating care grants.

Minnesota Hospital Association lobbyist Mary Krinkie said the deal is better than other alternatives that have been on the table, even with the cut in reimbursements.

“This is a lifeboat off of a sinking ship,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis said lawmakers plan to hold committee hearings on the proposal next week and possibly vote on it in the Senate. She predicted there would be enough votes to pass the bill.