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Forum looks at Minnesota health needs

From left, Northern Dental Access Center Executive Director Jeanne Edevold Larson discusses concerns with state Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidij, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, and Linda Yourczek with Beltrami County Health & Human Services during a tour Wednesday morning at Northern Dental. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

An area resident went to Northern Dental Access Center to stop the spread of tooth decay. Without fixing the problem, the patient could not begin chemotherapy.

But dental care was no longer reimbursable through the state, thanks to recent budget cuts. So staff contacted a local provider for assistance, and that answer was even more disheartening.

"They said not to worry about it, since (the patient) wouldn't be able to have chemo anyway," recalled Jeanne Edevold Larson, executive director of Northern Dental Access Clinic.

She spoke Wednesday morning during a 90-minute health care forum hosted by state Sens. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, at the American Indian Resource Center on the Bemidji State University campus. Berglin, who has been a senator for more than 30 years, chairs the Senate's health and Human Services Budget Division.

About 30 people attended the session, which offered an overview of federal health care reform and information on how early enrollment into that new system could benefit the state of Minnesota.

"We need to lower the cost of health care if we're all going to be able to afford health care in the future," Berglin said.

She said that if nothing changes, health care costs in 2018 are expected to be $90 billion, she noted.

The focus of the forum was on Minnesota's option to pursue early enrollment into the federal health reform program.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty decided in June that the state would not pursue early entrance into the federal Medicaid program.

Berglin and Olson said that was the wrong decision.

The new program will, in 2014, make available medical assistance to all poor, single adults who do not now have access to health insurance. It would come with a 100 percent federal funding match.

But Minnesota was one of 11 states given the option to begin the process immediately, Berglin noted. If that option was pursued, it would come with a 50 percent match.

"On Jan. 2 the new governor could send in the application and we would be on our way to becoming a partner with the federal government and Medicaid," Berglin said.

She noted that for every $1 in federal taxes paid by Minnesotans, the state gets 72 cents back, making it one of the bottom 10 states in terms of return.

Olson noted, too, that Pawlenty's cuts to General Assistance Medical Care, which serves the state's poorest single adults, didn't help either. Pawlenty "unallotted" funding for the program, but it was reinstated, after a veto and subsequent negotiation, with less funding.

The new GAMC program allows for patient care but has parameters that make it difficult for rural hospitals with high numbers of public assistance patients to collect reimbursements to cover costs.

The early enrollment into the federal Medicaid plan would offer a 50 percent federal match for the former GAMC patients and a much higher reimbursement to hospitals.

Olson said North Country Regional Hospital is losing between $5 million and $6 million because of the lost funding opportunities.

That would equate to about 20 new nursing positions, she said.

"I hope the situation will be different in the future," she said.

The forum was a continuation of a health care forum Olson hosted in April.

Following about an hour's worth of information, the senators took questions, which ranged from how to make available more funding for needy individuals to whether the country should not begin confronting the certainty of death and the costs associated with keeping people alive.

The session ended shortly after a question was asked about what residents should do if local legislators are supporting their causes but the "higher-ups" are not.

Olson said it is frustrating as a legislator to gain bipartisan support for a bill (such as the restoration of GAMC funding) and have Pawlenty veto it.

"When you have that kind of approach, your hands are tied," she said,