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Democrats unveil plan to restore coverage to Minnesota poor

ST. PAUL - Democrats want to use federal money, force counties to pay more and divert other funds to restore health care coverage to Minnesota's poor.

A program known as General Assistance Medical Care is due to expire March 1 after Gov. Tim Pawlenty eliminated its funding to help balance the state budget. A Democratic plan released Thursday at the Capitol would keep providing health care for the 70,000 adults earning less than $7,800 annually who now receive mostly free care via GAMC.

Pawlenty would put most of them on MinnesotaCare, a state-run insurance program that requires the payment of premiums. GAMC does not cost recipients.

Rep Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said the plan restores $292 million that Pawlenty cut. He admitted it remains "a work in progress."

Key to the plan is a scheme, used elsewhere in state government, to raise a surcharge on hospitals and other health care providers by $130 million in order to get a like amount of federal money. The increased surcharge then would be repaid to the providers.

More than $100 million in payments to hospitals and other providers would be cut, with no repayments planned, Huntley said.

Counties would be forced to pay $20 million more for poor residents' health care, as well as pay for all health care jail inmates receive. Other existing funds also would be used for the plan, which would last through June 30, 2011.

Huntley and other Democratic health leaders say a new federal health care law should kick in then, providing coverage to poor Minnesotans who otherwise could not afford it.

The plan also would require people now receiving GAMC help to use federal programs if they are eligible.

Huntley, chairman of the House health finance committee, said Democrats' goal is to pass a health bill the first week of the 2010 legislative session, which begins Feb. 4.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, said that will happen only if Democrats work with Republican Pawlenty to reach a compromise.

Pawlenty, speaking during a conference call from Chile on Thursday, said he has doubts about the Democratic plan, especially with increasing the surcharge just to get federal money. He and Dean said federal officials are taking a dim look at such schemes, although Huntley said he thinks it will fly.

Dean plans to introduce a GOP plan at a Monday committee hearing. He said it, too, would cover everyone now on GAMC, but would do it for less than the Democratic plan.

Figures Democrats prepared indicate their proposal would reduce payments to hospitals about half that of Pawlenty's plan to eliminate GAMC. Examples:

• Mahnomen Health Center, $22,000 under Pawlenty plan, $11,000 under DFL plan.

• Perham Memorial Hospital, $66,000 under Pawlenty plan, $33,000 under DFL plan.

• North Country Health Services, Bemidji, $2.6 million under Pawlenty plan, $654,000 under DFL plan.

• St. Joseph's Area Health Services, Park Rapids, $483,500 under Pawlenty plan, $120,900 under DFL plan.