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Patrick Springer, Published January 10 2009

Coalition pushes for universal health coverage for Minnesotans

A coalition pushing universal health coverage for all Minnesotans called Friday for passage of a bill that would focus first on covering the estimated 77,000 children in the state who lack health insurance.

A group of supporters of the proposed Minnesota Health Security Act, introduced Thursday in the Minnesota Senate, said the need for affordable, universal coverage is especially urgent in light of the rising unemployment rate, now 7.2 percent nationally.

An estimated 375,000 Minnesotans, or 7.2 percent of the population, lack health insurance, which often is a benefit of employment.

The rate of those lacking health coverage is higher in northwest Minnesota, where 8.2 percent are uninsured.

However, although agreeing with the goal of extending coverage to all, two local legislators contacted by The Forum said looming budget deficits mean this won’t be the year to achieve universal coverage in Minnesota.

“It’s a noble goal, but it just is not going to happen this session,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth. “We just don’t have the money to do it,” he added, noting that the deficit next biennium is forecast at $4.2 billion but could be up to $6 billion.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, agreed that the deficit makes extending coverage this year unfeasible, although the state should continue striving toward that goal.

Supporters said the universal coverage proposal contains significant cost-control measures and would help eliminate costly emergency room care, where the uninsured often end up because they can’t access preventive care.

“Untreated situations become worse, leading to a situation where people go to the emergency room,” said Steve Hunter, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Last year, Minnesota health providers confronted $373 million in uncompensated health services, a figure Hunter said is projected to increase to $500 million.

The coalition supporting the measure, including labor, public health and clergy representatives, argues that now is the time to act. Extending coverage would help contain costs, prevent lost productivity at work and allow children to do their best in school.

“We must recognize that health care is a shared endeavor,” said the Rev. Dan Megorden, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Moorhead.

Mark Froemke of Crookston, Minn., is thankful his employer provided health coverage for his 40 days of hospitalization last year following gallbladder surgery.

“I consider myself a lucky person,” said Froemke, now an AFL-CIO representative. But health coverage should be universal, not left to chance, he added.

Sara Oltvedt, a single mother from Moorhead who works as a bar manager and waitress, said she struggles to pay for coverage for herself and her 2-year-old son, who last year was hospitalized with bacterial meningitis.

Her son is eligible for Minnesota Care, but she called that a “cruel joke” because she can’t afford her cost share. “I know what it’s like to be a struggling single parent,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522