Minn. Governor Calls for Universal Health Coverage for Children

November 16, 2006

After supporting cuts to subsidized health care in his first term, it appears Gov. Tim Pawlenty will use his second term to focus on expanding health insurance.

The governor said Tuesday that the state should start moving toward universal health coverage by covering the state’s 70,000 to 90,000 uninsured children. About three-fifths of them are currently eligible for subsidized care, but aren’t covered.

“We now have the resources to provide coverage for those children,” Pawlenty said at a health care conference in downtown Minneapolis. “I think that’s a logical next step in this progression towards universal coverage in Minnesota.”

It signals a new direction for the Republican governor, who was narrowly re-elected last week after a campaign filled with attacks on his health care record. This time he’ll probably have more cash to work with. After facing a memorable deficit in his first term, he’s now anticipating a budget surplus.

Critics welcomed his latest focus, with some caveats.

The number of uninsured children in Minnesota jumped about 20 percent from 2001 to 2004, according to the Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota. That was during a period when the numbers were falling in most other states.

That trend bothered Pawlenty, said Jim Koppel, the group’s director.

“That was a touchy point with him,” Koppel said. “He didn’t like seeing that increase.”

A proposal to insure all children by 2010 failed in the Legislature this year and last, and the state eliminated outreach funding for subsidized health programs last year.

Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said Pawlenty was responding to the election results.

“What we heard all over the state is health care affordability for businesses and families is a very high priority,” said Clark, the Senate DFL’s second in command.

Pawlenty said he’s always looked beyond arguments over the number of people covered by state programs, because that never got at the improvements he wanted to see.

“More access is a worthy goal, but without some improvement in the system, all we’re doing then is creating access to a system that is broken and is unsustainable,” he said.

Pawlenty didn’t outline specifics for expanded children’s coverage, but said options include extending the MinnesotaCare health plan for the working poor or creating a children’s insurance program with fewer services than those required for adults.

Spokesman Brian McClung said there’s no cost estimate yet. Koppel said his group’s plan to cover all children would have cost the state about $200 million a year if the federal government kicked in half the funding.

McClung said Pawlenty’s focus on universal coverage shouldn’t be confused with support for a single-payer health care system or government takeover of health care.

Speaking to a room filled with health professionals and policymakers, the governor saved some sharp words for health maintenance organizations.

“What is the health value of what they do?” he said. “How have the outcomes improved? Are we less obese? Are we less diabetic? Do we have less heart disease? Do we have less cancer? Are our children more engaged and active? Do we have less mental health challenge?”

He said he was trying to be provocative and questioned the future of nonprofit HMOs as “glorified aggregators of risk and underwriters of risk.” He said consumers should have more power in the health care system.