Growing Minnesota’s economy by fixing its health problem

Exclusively submitted to the Star Tribune
by Becky Lourey

Affordable health care is good for business.  Healthy workers are more productive. Productive businesses are more competitive.

Providing health coverage for all Minnesotans will make our businesses stronger, not weaker. And we can accomplish it through cost containment, bulk drug purchasing, prevention, paperwork reduction and accountability – without huge increases in state spending. The next time you hear someone promoting myths to the contrary, ask whether they’re acting on behalf of a vested interest that doesn’t want the health care system challenged or changed.
Here is the most pressing fact: We cannot afford to leave the health care system as it is.  Families cannot afford it, and neither can businesses.

Our companies are being forced to either cut health benefits – often leaving employees dependent on government safety nets – or cut jobs altogether.  The rate of uninsured Minnesotans has swelled on Gov. Pawlenty’s watch – rising 24 percent between 2001 and 2004 (based on a U. of M. School of Public Health study).  A 2003 survey found almost a quarter of Minnesotans had forgone medical care in the preceding year because of cost, neglecting serious medical conditions in more than half of those instances.

Yet the current governor seems incapable of perceiving that health care is a priority for regular Minnesotans.  That’s what happens when you spend your time inside a circle of lobbyists for the haves in society who’d rather roll back Minnesota’s safety net.

We need to get beyond empty platitudes and reach out for a realistic, comprehensive solution.  People will try to pick any significant plan apart based on their personal agenda, but we now have to move forward with a workable solution.  For the sake of achieving universal health care coverage sooner rather than later, I feel it is my duty to take the lead by offering a thorough solution.

The heart of the solution is in our midst.  MinnesotaCare program has expanded access for thousands of the working poor since 1992.  It is successful, solvent and stable.  We should let Minnesota businesses share in the savings by giving them the option of covering their employees through MinnesotaCare – a lower-cost alternative to the private market, but voluntary. Government should not mandate any business or individual to participate in a state-run program.

We should stop squandering potential economies of scale. Larger coverage groups enjoy lower risk, manageable costs, and greater bargaining power.  While preserving an adequate MinnesotaCare fund balance backed by the existing provider tax base, we can gradually expand its coverage pool, increasing efficiency within the health care system and encouraging preventive care. The state can establish a prescription drug purchasing alliance, allowing local government and private entities to join. We can help local purchasing groups unite to negotiate for products and services.

Savings will result if we clamp down on overhead. Much of the money flowing into our health system is wasted on administration, duplicative paperwork, unneeded capital expenditures and excessive executive paychecks. The state should ask any insurer working with state-funded insurance programs to cap executive pay and to spend no less than 95 percent on direct care.
We all accept that health should not be tied to wealth, and that the poor do not deserve to be relegated to illness. It’s time to connect the dots and officially acknowledge that people deserve access to health care regardless of income.  We also must affirm that businesses do not deserve to be burdened with excessive health costs any more than families and individuals do.

By applying courage and creativity, we can meet this challenge and achieve health care coverage that is affordable for all.