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Senators OK health reform

ST. PAUL - A divided Minnesota Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a health-care reform package some lawmakers described as bold and necessary and others said moves too fast.

The bill aims to bring down health care costs, get more Minnesotans health insurance and lead to better health care results, said author Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis.

Action is needed because without reforming the system, Berglin said, health care spending will continue to escalate.

"We know what will happen if we don't do anything," she said.

A floor vote was delayed more than a week as supporters worked to tweak the controversial bill to appease health care interest groups and fellow senators. It passed 41-22.

The bill attempts to increase the number of insured Minnesotans through public and private health plans, requires health care providers to post their costs for treatments and creates a statewide health plan to curb obesity and tobacco use.

It also proposes creating "medical homes" in which medical staff would agree to work closely with patients suffering from chronic diseases -- such as asthma, heart conditions and diabetes - to reduce more costly treatments down the road.

In exchange, the medical homes would receive additional monthly per-patient payments.

Minutes before senators began debating their health-care reform bill, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he had concerns. He said he hopes to meet soon with Berglin and Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who is sponsoring a similar bill in the House.

The Republican governor did not specify his differences with DFL health leaders, but said Huntley and Berglin already know he opposes the bill as it stands.

Opponents of the Senate bill raised concerns about medical privacy issues, growing bureaucracies, new health care taxes and uncertainty about how much money it would save.

"This bill proposes a fraud," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen.

The biggest challenge to the DFL-led plan actually came from Democratic Sen. John Marty of Roseville, who tried to strip key reform provisions from the bill.

Marty, who leads a health care policy committee, said he would keep important parts of the bill intact, but he criticized other portions. He proposed a University of Minnesota study of proposed health care reforms.

Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said reform is essential, but the bill moves too fast.

"It doesn't say that we have to stop forever," Prettner Solon said of the Marty amendment.

Berglin and other bill supporters said the package needed to stay intact to even have a possibility of gaining Pawlenty's backing.

Pawlenty, too, was critical of the Marty proposal to replace some of the reforms with a study.

"It doesn't really solve anything," he said.

Senators rejected the amendment 33-32.

The House is moving forward with its own health care reform package; a vote is not expected until next week at the earliest.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, touted the so-called medical home provision. He said a Duluth pilot medical home program for congestive heart failure sufferers resulted in an 80 percent reduction in emergency room visits, hospital stays and the time those patients spent hospitalized.

"These are phenomenal cost savings for the entire health care system," Lourey said.

Some rural lawmakers said the bill could be problematic in their areas, where residents' health care options are limited.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said the bill creates winners and losers, and people in greater Minnesota could do all the right things and still pay more for health care than others in metropolitan areas.

"I don't believe that is a system we want to put in place," Olson said

The health care reform package grew out of recommendations from two panels -- the governor-appointed Health Care Transformation Task Force and the Legislative Commission on Health Care Access - that met prior to the 2008 legislative session.

"Do I think this bill is the silver bullet that's going to fix everything in health care?" asked Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley. "No, but I think it's a step in the right direction."

State Capitol Bureau reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.