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MeritCare against public health insurance option

FARGO -- MeritCare officials Wednesday came out in support of North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad's stance against a public health insurance option tied to Medicare, saying such an option would damage rural health care providers.

Across the state, North Dakota's top health care providers responded to a health care reform proposal passed Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee, of which Conrad is a Democratic member.

Conrad voted for the bill, while reiterating his opposition to a public health insurance option that's tied to Medicare reimbursement rates.

MeritCare officials said the state's health care system could crumble if such an option is adopted by Congress.

North Dakota has one of the lowest Medicare reimbursement rates in the country, so an option that's tied to those rates would be a disadvantage for the state.

"In my judgment, it would have the potential of destabilizing the whole health care system of North Dakota to the point of making much of it nonviable," MeritCare president and CEO Dr. Roger Gilbertson said at a news conference Wednesday.

The competition that would be created between Blue Cross Blue Shield and a government-run insurance option tied to Medicare rates might ultimately cause MeritCare to reduce its medical services in order to avoid losing millions of dollars, said Bev Adams, MeritCare's legal counsel.

"If we eliminate services, that means individuals are going to lose their jobs in North Dakota," Adams said. "It's not just simply access to health care, but it's also a huge impact on the economy."

But a public option is still far from a reality. House and Senate Democrats are working separately to combine health care reform proposals in each chamber before bills can be brought to each floor for a vote.

While Conrad said he would not support a public option tied to Medicare, he failed to say Tuesday whether he was willing to break from party lines over the issue. As an alternative, Conrad said he supports regional health care cooperatives.

National and state Democratic leaders have heavily supported the public option and, in recent weeks, urged Conrad to fall in line with party platform.

Gilbertson said Wednesday it's too soon to know whether the public option will ever be put to a vote, but that MeritCare wanted to make its position clear before that happened.

"There are many other things about health care reform which are good, but I think this particular issue would be a very negative thing for us," Gilbertson said.