Gov. Mark Dayton said during his campaign that enrolling 95,000 people in an expanded Medicaid program would be his top priority when he took office -- and he meant it.
Less than three weeks after he was told by members of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration that it could take until October to enact the change, Dayton announced Thursday that it would be done by March 1.
"This shows what happens when you have a dedicated commissioner who is committed to the mission of the agency, and an administration that is dedicated to carrying out the purpose of this," Dayton said.
He said the move will mean increased care for low-income Minnesotans, and more than $1 billion in federal money for the state's health care providers.
Dayton signed an executive order earlier this month that allowed for the expansion. He publicly criticized the timeline laid out by former Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman and ordered his new commissioner, Cindy Jesson, to figure out a way to enact the plan earlier.
Jesson said that sent a clear message to her and the members of the Human Services Department.
"After Gov. Dayton signed the executive order for the expansion two weeks ago, many hard-working employees at the Department of Human Services turned all of their efforts to making this expansion possible," she said. "We made it our priority and it's going to happen."
One reason Pawlenty administration officials predicted the expansion would take so long is that the computer system that processes Medicaid and other health care programs is outdated.
Jesson said there are still some details that need to be worked out, but she said one way they'll speed up the timeline is by requiring state workers to manually enter the enrollees in a database.
Starting March 1, the state will transfer about 32,000 people from General Assistance Medical Care to the expanded Medicaid program. Another 51,000 people currently on MinnesotaCare will be eligible for Medicaid starting March 1, but the state's department of human services said it will take about six months to complete the transition. The benefits will be retroactive to March 1.
The expanded program will also cover about 12,000 people not currently on any state health insurance program, according to Dayton's administration.
State Democrats and Republicans have been embroiled in a harsh political fight over Medicaid expansion since Congress enacted the federal health care overhaul late last year.
Pawlenty and Democrats in the Legislature crafted a budget deal last spring that gave Pawlenty and whoever succeeded him as governor the option of enrolling in the federal program.
Pawlenty, who is mulling a presidential bid, declined to do so. But Dayton, who campaigned on the expansion, signed the executive order within days of taking office.
Republicans still oppose the expansion and say they will try to repeal it.
State Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, the chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Budget and Policy Committee, said he thinks it will be hard for the Dayton administration to meet the March 1 deadline. Hann also said he's concerned about the long-term fiscal implications of the move.
"We're trying to call some attention to what I think has been a longstanding problem, which has been the federal involvement in health care and HHS issues in Minnesota," Hann said. "It puts a very severe constraint on our ability in Minnesota to manage our budget for the benefit of our people."
Hann said he hopes his bill to repeal the expansion gets a hearing next week. But the effort is unlikely to succeed. Dayton said he will veto any attempts to repeal or modify the expansion, and Republicans don't have enough votes in the House or Senate to override a veto.