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Cover-all-kids bill wins first vote

ST. PAUL - Proponents of a plan to ensure all Minnesota children receive free health care successfully made their case Wednesday at their first Senate hearing.

All children residing in the state would receive government-funded health care under a proposed Children's Health Security program. Despite taking heavy flak from Republicans on the committee, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, received majority support and cruised its way up the legislative ladder.

"I think the citizens of Minnesota are demanding this," Prettner Solon said after the hearing.

Children would be eligible to receive medical care from the cradle until their 19th birthday, the bill states. Full-time dependent students under the age of 25 also would be eligible.

The voluntary program would begin by first accommodating the state's poorer children - those from families at or below 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines - by 2008, Prettner Solon said. By 2010, the program would expand to cover all children.

Prettner Solon said she's awaiting a fiscal analysis of the proposal before she puts a price tag on her plan. An early draft of the bill called for the program to be funded through a cigarette tax hike, but she said that mechanism was axed after Gov. Tim Pawlenty's tobacco surcharge took hold in 2005.

She estimated the cost of the Children's Health Security program between $100 million and $225 million.

No deductibles, co-pays or premiums would be required under the plan. But, Prettner Solon noted, plans could change.

The legislation calls for the program to be reviewed and proposed to the Legislature by the human services commissioner.

Having no external funding source identified drew concern from at least one Republican senator.

"When people have even the smallest investment in something, they tend to value it more," said Sen. Betsy Wergin of Princeton.

Other parts of the program could be susceptible to abusers of the health care system, Wergin added, saying "we could become the health care for the nation's children."

Prettner Solon and several testifiers defended the plan, saying other states have successfully implemented similar plans without significant exploitation.

"I implore you," Denise Herrmann, a school nurse for St. Paul public schools, said to legislators. "They need your help. They need coverage every day for their conditions."

Also backing the plan was Children's Defense Fund Minnesota Director Jim Koppel, who argued the strengths of the plan with Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.

After Koppel characterized the American health care system as among the worst among industrialized nations, Hann asked why an improved market-driven system wouldn't work.

"Because something is in the public good doesn't necessarily mean that the government has to be the monopoly supplier of that good," Hann said.

The bill now heads to the Senate State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee.