Friday, March 5, 2010

Three Minnesota Residents Sue to Save Expiring Health Plan

By Tim Pugmire and Madeleine Baran

Minnesota Public Radio
March 4, 2010

Three Minnesota recipients of General Assistance Medical Care filed a lawsuit against Gov. Pawlenty and other state officials Thursday to keep the subsidized health care program in place, at least temporarily.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Ramsey County District Court, seeks to prevent the end of funding for General Assistance Medical Care on April 1.

The state had planned to transfer many current GAMC enrollees into another state health insurance program, called MinnesotaCare, on April 1. But many recipients say they would not be able to afford MinnesotaCare' s monthly premiums and higher co-payments.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut GAMC last year as part of his unallotment action to balance the state budget. GAMC covers more than 30,000 low-income adults.

Anne Quincy, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, says the state has enough money available to provide coverage to needy Minnesotans under GAMC for at least another month. "Every month of General Assistance Medical Care, until there is another program to replace it, is vital," she said. "The funds that are appropriated for GAMC should be spent on GAMC. And our clients are greatly in need of those services."

The lawsuit does not challenge Pawlenty's line-item veto of GAMC funding for fiscal 2011. Instead, three GAMC recipients allege Pawlenty violated the state Constitution when he used unallotment to cut funding for fiscal 2010.

Their lawsuit says there was enough money available to pay for GAMC at least through the end of April, and that the unallotment law does not allow its use in that circumstance.

Quincy says it's the same basic argument in an earlier unallotment case that the governor has appealed to the State Supreme Court.

"If the Minnesota Supreme Court should decide that the unallotment of the nutrition program was unconstitutional, then we think our temporary restraining order could become a permanent injunction," she said.

The lawsuit comes three days after the House failed to override Pawlenty's veto of a GAMC extension. The governor has repeatedly defended his cut of GAMC funding as a necessary move to control an unsustainable area of state spending.

His office issued only a brief written response to the lawsuit. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the lawsuit seeks to spend money the state doesn't have and "underscores why the state budget shouldn't be run out of a courtroom."

The three plaintiffs are Robert Fischer and Gabriella Raspa of Minneapolis, and James Beede, who lives in Ramsey County.

Fischer, 51, has sleep apnea, depression, and a degenerative back condition. His only income is $203 a month from the state's General Assistance program.

Fischer said he would be unable to afford his medications and doctor's payments if he loses his GAMC coverage and is transferred to MinnesotaCare.

Fischer said has been looking for a job, but said that he doubts he would be able to work if his medical conditions went untreated.

"My life will become more complicated and painful," he said.

But, he added, "I don't want to be viewed as a victim. To me, the reason I'm doing all this stuff is to help change the system."

Raspa, 22, has diabetes and relies on insulin. She works part-time at a bagel shop, and said she would be unable to afford medication if she loses her insurance coverage.

"[Pawlenty] is taking it out on the people who are the poorest and sickest," Raspa said.

Beede, the third plaintiff, is a Vietnam veteran who lives on $203 month in General Assistance payments.

Under General Assistance Medical Care, recipients pay $1 for generic prescription drugs and $3 for name brand medications, with a $7 monthly maximum. The program does not have co-payments for doctor's visits.

In contrast, MinnesotaCare charges a $3 co-payment for all prescription drugs, a $3 co-payment for non-preventive doctor's visits, and does not have a monthly co-payment maximum.

Meanwhile, legislators were back at work trying to find a compromise plan for covering the affected patients. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said the lawsuit wouldn't change her focus.

"We have always known there was a potential for lawsuits," said Berglin. "Maybe there will be more, I don't know. But we believe this problem needs to get solved for the long term though the legislative process."

Attorney Anne Quincy has a similar view. She said the GAMC lawsuit will probably be withdrawn if lawmakers reach agreement on a new health care plan.

See also the previous PCV posts:
Update on GAMC
GAMC - The Story Behind the Story

Helpful Resources:
How You Can Help Save GAMC

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