Gov. Tim Pawlenty defended his record on health care today while unveiling new initiatives to fight chronic disease and to provide consumers with more information on medical costs.
The Republican governor has been a frequent critic of President Obama's efforts to reform health care at the federal level. And Pawlenty tried to demonstrate how market-driven reform in Minnesota is the better approach.
Pawlenty and other officials announced the first grants to be awarded through a new program aimed at reducing tobacco use and obesity. The Statewide Health Improvement Program, or SHIP, will divide $47 million among 39 communities.
State Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan says the recipients have proposed projects ranging from a smoking ban on local college campuses to an effort to get children walking to school. Magnan says environmental changes are often the key to improving health.
"They have to access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They have to know that they can go out and walk in a place that's available to them," said Magnan. "They have to know, if they're ready to quit smoking, that they have cessation services. So it's the environmental part. It takes personal responsibility and community responsibility to actually be effective."
The double-header news conference also highlighted a new comparison shopping tool available to health care consumers.
A nonprofit coalition has been sharing information about the quality of Minnesota health care providers on its Web site for a few years. The site now includes information on the costs of more than 100 procedures at Minnesota clinics and hospitals.
Jim Chase of MN Community Measurement says the prices are based on average payments to insurance companies, not out-of-pocket costs.
"But this gives them some information to really compare what's happening in the market," said Chase. "So they can look and see what others are paying on average for this particular service, and see whether they're getting a good value for themselves."
The announcement of the market-driven Web project comes as Congress debates a nationwide overhaul of the health care system, and an especially contentious proposal for a government-run option.
Gov. Pawlenty, a Republican, has been a persistent critic of the Democratic-led efforts in Washington, DC. Pawlenty repeated that he doesn't want the government running health care. He also said the Obama administration is focused too much on access and not enough on cost.
"We shouldn't be so concerned about the 8 percent who are uninsured, at the expense of containing costs to the 92 percent who are insured," said Pawlenty. "For most Minnesotans and most Americans, they are insured, and their main struggle is how to continue to afford their insurance or health care more broadly."
Pawlenty, who is not running for a third term next year, defended his recent actions to reduce the number of Minnesotans receiving state-subsidized health care. He said financial responsibility was needed in health care to avoid even bigger state budget problems.
The DFL-controlled Legislature passed a broad Minnesota health care reform measure in 2008 that included several provisions aimed at holding down costs, as well as the money for the local health improvement grants.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis, a DFL candidate for governor, says Pawlenty is now taking credit for an effort he didn't fully support.
"Instead of just working on 12 percent of cost containment a year ago, we could have gotten 20 percent cost containment had the governor had the courage to move further in his work on health care," said Kelliher. "I think he's certainly quick to criticize, and he also seems to be quite quick to take credit for the work of a lot of others in the state."
Another Democrat who's running for governor also criticized Pawlenty's health care announcement.
State Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, says Pawlenty's praise for the local grants is particularly ironic, considering he tried to dismantle the program last session with a proposed $23 million cut in his budget.
In a response to Thissen, Pawlenty said he could have taken the money if he wanted to by a veto or through unallotment, but he chose not to.