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Jesson tasked with implementing uncertain health care law

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Lucinda Jesson
Newly-appointed Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson in MPR studios.
MPR Photo/Elliot deBruyn

The person leading the federal health care overhaul in Minnesota says the state will forge ahead regardless of the uncertainty in Washington.  

GOP leaders have vowed to starve the legislation of funding, piece by piece.

It's not like Lucinda Jesson needs more to do. She's running Minnesota's largest agency, the Department of Human Services -- a department that comprises nearly 30 percent of the state's budget.  

In addition, Gov. Mark Dayton assigned her to expand Medicaid to include another 95,000 people by March 1, something the previous administration said couldn't be accomplished before October.  And then, there's overhauling the health care system.  With all that, Jesson said she's ready to go.

"Federal reform is really just building on what we're already doing here in Minnesota," she said. "A lot of the ideas that we're talking about in federal reform are already ideas we had started to work on here in our state."

Ideas like a health insurance exchange, for example -- an online site that will allow consumers to comparison shop for health insurance.   It's a concept Gov. Tim Pawlenty endorsed years ago but eventually abandoned the idea.  

Pawlenty, a staunch opponent of the health care law and the discretionary state grants that go with it, ordered all state agencies to pass on those funds, including a planning grant to set up a Minnesota exchange.  

Gov. Dayton changed that course. Jesson said the state is behind but says a late start is preferable to doing nothing. 

"I think people might disagree how to best structure these exchanges but I think all of us feel it's much better for Minnesota to come together and have a Minnesota exchange as opposed to having the federal government come in and impose their cookie cutter approach on us," she said.

Jesson comes to the job from a career that combines health and the law.  She's a former deputy Minnesota attorney general, Hennepin County prosecutor, a scholar on health care finance and most recently ran Hamline University's health law institute.  She says the academic perspective gives her the ability to step back and see the big picture.  

But she has to implement a federal health law that faces an uncertain future.  Republicans have vowed to dismantle the legislation, defunding it piece by piece.  Jesson said Minnesota will chart its own health care course regardless of what happens in Washington.  

"I think federal reform gives us federal dollars, the ability to do that faster but I think we should be walking down that road anyway," she said "We can't afford not to because we need to keep improving our health care system and we need to lower the costs."

Lowering costs, Jesson said, is particularly important to businesses that provide insurance to their employees.  She said she plans to work with employers to ensure they not only take advantage of the overhaul's tax credits but also lower health care costs long term.

"If we can bend the cost curve -- as President Obama would say -- that benefits not only state government, that benefits all Minnesotans, and it particularly benefits those businesses that are out there purchasing health care for their employees," she said.

Jesson said in the past year she's spent a lot of time writing and speaking about improving the health care system.  Now, she said, she's eager to start working on putting reform into practice.