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Health care task force issues broad suggestions
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Dave Durenberger's health care task force has released some broad outlines of what should be done to contain health care costs. Durenberger acknowledges that many of those ideas have been suggested before. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Pawlenty's health care task force, chaired by former Sen. Dave Durenberger, Friday released part of its proposal for improving health care costs in the state. The task force has held town hall meetings across the state to seek citizen input on providing quality, affordable health care. While some say the recommendations are a good first step in improving the system, some are withholding judgement until the entire report is released.

St. Paul, Minn. — The task force has worked on developing its report for three months. The panel issued six recommendations for making the health care system better and less expensive. Many of the ideas were vague, and some have been recommended for years.

One recommendation calls on health care professionals to reduce costs by improving quality. Another suggests combining state workers and people on public insurance programs into one bulk purchasing group. Bulk purchasing groups can usually negotiate deeper insurance and drug discounts than smaller groups.

The proposal stopped short of recommending a universal health care system, which was discussed in several task force meetings.

It was the same problem today as it was then, so to that extent there's nothing new. What's different today is that people are ready to act. Minnesotans can't take it anymore.
- Dave Durenberger

Former Sen. Dave Durenberger says several health care analysts have recommended similar changes since the mid-1980s. But he believes the time is right to start the heavy lifting of implementing change.

"It was the same problem today as it was then, so to that extent there's nothing new," Durenberger says. "What's different today is that people are ready to act. Minnesotans can't take it anymore."

Durenberger believes there's greater pressure to change because health care premiums have increased at double-digit rates for the last few years. Employers must choose between absorbing the increases and hurting their bottom lines, or passing on the increases to employees.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, says he wants to withhold judgment on the task force's proposal until the full report, with more specific recommendations, is released later this month.

"I'm concerned, but there's nothing in the report today that I can disagree with. It's all things that we've talked about," says Huntley. "The question is, what are we going to do to fix it?"

Huntley is optimistic that the governor and Legislature will take some sort of action to make changes to the current system. But Jim Koppel with the Children's Defense Fund says lawmakers will need to spend a lot of time on the issue.

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Image Rep. Fran Bradley

Koppel says several special interests, ranging from the state's HMOs to hospitals to doctors, all have a significant financial stake in the outcome and won't be happy if the proposals are controversial.

"I'm not discouraged. I just don't know enough to say that it's encouraging, except to say the leadership like that is very important to bring about change," says Koppel. "It takes a lot of tough decisions, and he's going to have to spend a tremendous amount of political capital to push these issues."

Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, says he's hopeful that health care professionals, HMOs and others will work to reduce costs without the Legislature stepping in. Bradley says doctors and other health care professionals realize that the public may not support the current market-based system if quality and cost don't improve.

"If we don't do something to turn around the slope of the curve, the cry for single-payer -- even though I don't believe in it, I think it's a bad choice -- will be so strong among public policymakers that it will begin to roll," says Bradley.

Bradley has proposed a plan that would limit medical malpractice awards, allow for-profit HMOs to operate in the state and limit any new state regulations on doctors and health plans.

Gov. Pawlenty says he hopes lawmakers will begin to work on the proposal immediately. He says the current health model is 10 years old, and isn't working any longer.

"It served us well in some respects, but it has run its course because the purpose of cost containment has not been realized," says Pawlenty.

While he wants work to begin immediately, Pawlenty says any major changes many have to wait until next year's session, when he and the Legislature assemble the next two-year budget.

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