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Commentary: House offers real health care progress

Over the past few months, I've had the opportunity to visit communities across the state to talk about health care issues. What I have found is that Minneso-tans in every corner of the state and walk of life are strug-gling with the heavy burden ...

Over the past few months, I've had the opportunity to visit communities across the state to talk about health care issues. What I have found is that Minneso-tans in every corner of the state and walk of life are strug-gling with the heavy burden of health care. It is a problem for thousands of middle-class families, small businesses, and farmers.

Minnesotans understand that rising health care costs are at the bottom of the gnawing e-conomic insecurity we all feel.

To begin with, health care is unaffordable for a rapidly grow-ing number of Minnesota fam-ilies. A recent report from Fam-ilies USA indicates that one in five Minnesotans -- over 1 mil-lion of us -- are paying more than 10 percent of our income for health care. Nearly a quar-ter million Minnesotans with insurance pay over 25 percent of their income for health care!

And, even though Minnesota ranks near the top in number of insured, the consequences for the thousands who lack insurance are dire. Another Families USA survey tells us that three working-age Minne-sotans die every week due to lack of health insurance. This is attributed to the fact that the uninsured often go without screenings and preventive care, and they delay or forego needed medical care.

For example, uninsured wo-men are substantially more li-kely to be diagnosed with advan-ced stage breast cancer than women with private insurance.

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The need for a meaningful solution is urgent. Earlier this month, the House passed its health care reform bill, a plan to transform Minnesota's health care system by lowering costs, making health care more affordable for Minnesotans with insurance, extending cov-erage to the uninsured, and changing the health care sys-tem so that it meets the needs of patients, not insurance plans or bureaucrats.

One of the most exciting com-ponents of this package is that we could actually have a health care system in our state that pays to keep people heal-thy. Instead of stretching health care dollars to cover expensive treatments and procedures, this plan would reward health care professionals for helping to prevent diseases in the first place - providing a significant cost savings.

When chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes account for up to 83 percent of health care spending, it is obvious that the best way to lower overall costs is to help Minnesotans with chronic diseases manage their health.

Another key component is setting a clear standard that middle-class families should pay no more than 6 percent to 8 percent of their annual income for health care. A focus on cutting administrative costs, improving how care is delivered, and reducing smoking and obesity will bring down the price of health insurance and make it more affordable for everyone.

New partnerships between government and private employers can help Minnesotans bridge any remaining gap between the actual cost of health coverage and the affordability standard.

The House health care package is funded by the Health Care Access Fund. This self-supporting fund was established in 1992 to help manage the MinnesotaCare program, which is designed to provide low-cost health care to Minnesotans and to promote certain activities related to health care access. The fund receives its revenues from provider taxes (including hospitals, surgical centers and other health care providers), premiums on behalf of MinnesotaCare enrollees, a 1 percent gross premiums tax, and federal matching funds.

It is critical to the success of this reform plan that the HCAF remains intact. Between fiscal years 2004 and 2007, a total of $486 million from the Health Care Access Fund was transferred into the General Fund to help address the budget deficit. As a result, thousands of Minnesotans lost their MinnesotaCare coverage, including 68,000 children.

Again this year, the governor would like to use this fund to help fill the budget deficit, an approach I strongly disagree with. At a time when growing numbers of Minnesotans are concerned about health care issues, this fund must be used for its original intent -- health care.

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The loud cry for health care reform is coming from Republicans and Democrats, from urban, suburban and rural families, from labor and business groups, HMOs and medical providers. People are getting sicker and in some cases dying because state decision-makers have lacked the will, the energy, or the compassion to transform our health care system.

The time for political maneuvering and ideology is long past; we need to act now to enact these reforms that will transform Minnesota's health care system.

Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House and is chairman of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee.

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