Wednesday, December 16, 2009

reNEW Minnesota Campaign Health Equity Event, December 15, 2009

ReNew Minnesota Campaign is part of TakeAction Minnesota. The reNEW Minnesota Campaign was launched at a kickoff on September 26, 2009, at Arlington High School in St. Paul. The picture above is from the Health Equity Event that was held on December 15, 2009, at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. The picture directly below is from the kickoff event.
    Mark Dayton, 2010 gubernatorial candidate, speaks at the reNEW Minnesota Campaign kickoff.

Let's talk about what happened at the Health Equity Event on December 15.

The event was opened by Gene Nichols. Gene told the audience of how he used to be so proud to be a Minnesotan. Now he's very disappointed with Governor Pawlenty. He's disappointed with health inequities. And he's disappointed and angry about the demise of GAMC. All reNEW Minnesota members are disappointed and angry about these things.

Next, Elizabeth Towle told the audience about the Indian health disparities and about the racism that is directed against the Indian community. Elizabeth agrees with the reNEW philosophy that all Minnesotans are in this together. We believe that the inherent worth and dignity of everyone must be recognized with no exceptions. She talked about the many medical disparities that Indians face. For example, the Indian community has the highest rate of suicide. And with the eradication of GAMC, many will have no medical care at all. There are lots of people in this community who are not helped by the Indian Health Board. Elizabeth told a powerful story. We all need to listen.

After that, Nancy Pomplun spoke about Asian health disparities. She also gave information about health data and why we need detailed racial and ethnic data. This should be a mandatory data collection (mandatory for the state to collect it; not mandatory for any individual to participate, as Mark Dayton so accurately pointed out). Currently there are only five race categories and only two ethnic categories. (There are several organizations that currently collect data. The problem is that no two of them collect it in the same way. The Minnesota Department of Health Division of Health Policy is looking into this and is starting to do something about it.) Nancy reminded us that solving health disparities begins with collecting this type of data.

The next speaker was Valory Belton. Valory is an African American woman who suffers from hypertension. She pointed out that 44% of black American women have hypertension while only 28% of white American women have it. She spoke of research that suggests that racism can cause stress which can in turn cause certain hormones to raise blood pressure. She also mentioned how the Sage Program (MDH section of Cancer Control) is instrumental in making sure that low income women get mammograms at no cost. (There is also a sister program that provides PAP tests.)

After this first part of the evening's program was finished, Marc Drummond (TakeAction Minnesota, Woodbury) stepped forward. He stated that our health care system should include everyone. He also said that he is sick and tired of elected officials not keeping their campaign promises. (At that point I was thinking how Mark Dayton always keeps his promises with no excuses and no exceptions.)

Next, Marc Drummond moderated the gubernatorial candidates as they each answered one question. All the candidates had to answer the same question and had three minutes in which to do so. Eight of the DFL gubernatorial candidates were present. Only Tom Bakk and Susan Gaertner were missing. There was only one GOP candidate. All the GOP candidates were invited, but only Leslie Davis showed up.

This was the question: What would you do, as Governor, to remedy the racial inequities in health in Minnesota?

Here is how the various candidates answered (not verbatim, but paraphrased in my note-taking words):

R. T. Rybak - As mayor of Minneapolis, he has worked with people who are victims of health disparities. He believes in universal health care and stresses that prenatal care and early childhood immunizations are essential. He stated that we cannot separate health disparities from other disparities such as housing, jobs and food access. I got the sense that Rybak kind of understands the reNEW Minnesota vision, but not entirely. I think he misses part of the point.

Leslie Davis (the only GOP candidate present) - He says that people don't know where money comes from. He has a plan to balance the budget. He states that Minnesotans need to eat right, especially in schools. He wants to get rid of pollution in the cities because he thinks pollution can cause bad health. He has an underground water plan. He has a plan that will pay for GAMC.  As a Republican, I don't believe that Davis understands the impact of the reNEW Minnesota vision or what it encompasses. He doesn't seem to get it. He talks about eating right. How does he expect certain people to do that when they can't even afford to buy the food they need?

Matt Entenza - He started right out talking about his alcoholic father and how he left the family. He talks about this at every forum and debate. I thought it was inappropriate here. He thinks this will make people empathize with him because they'll think he knows where they are coming from. He's a multi-millionaire now. No one cares about his childhood now. What we care about is how he is going to get rid of health inequities for the poorest and most neglected Minnesotans. Entenza stated that he remembered having bronchitis and his mother told him he had to get better because they had no money for a doctor. And now he's name dropping again about the minority legislators who are supporting him. He's not really answering the question. I don't think he really understand the reNEW Minnesota vision and focus. He did say that he wants everyone to have health care. Every DFLer agrees with that.

Paul Thissen - He stated that health disparities are a long dark shadow on health care. He says that Minnesota is only 17th in health equity among all states. He further states that 15% of blacks but only 6% of whites lack health insurance. He was emphatic that outreach is critical. He said that Minnesota has done a good job in reducing infant mortality in diverse cultures. I get the sense that Thissen understands the reNEW Minnesota vision fairly well.

Steve Kelley - I should have sat in the back of the room. Kelly always speaks so loudly. He was so loud that it made me not want to listen. I did anyway, though. He said that we need to disconnect employment from health care because we can't deal with disparities unless everyone has coverage, even the unemployed and underemployed. He further stated that prenatal care is essential. He admits that he's more from the education side than the health care side. He believes that health literacy is important, but we have to be literate before we can have health literacy. He stated that we need to measure health outcomes on a county to county basis. I don't think that he really answered the question either. He doesn't seem to have a true grasp of what the reNEW Minnesota vision is all about.

John Marty - He states that people hurt because of ill health and poverty. He wants child care to be accessible to every child. Child care should not have a waiting list. Marty uses pauses in his speech very effectively and thus gave a powerful three-minute speech. He stated that we need health care, not health insurance. He is the author of the Minnesota Health Plan. Now if we can only get it passed. It's an excellent bill. I feel that John Marty truly understands the reNEW Minnesota vision.

Mark Dayton - He explained how he lived with a welfare family in a poor part of New York City when he was just out of college so he could learn first hand how people lived who were less fortunate than himself. After that he taught in a NYC inner city school. He was appalled that kids came to school without breakfast and only 25 cents in their pocket for french fries for lunch. He passionately stated that he wants equal medical treatment for everyone because they are human beings. He finds it morally and ethically unacceptable that some people are currently excluded from health care. He was emphatic that health care should not be dependent on income or race. Dayton also used pauses effectively. He gave a very powerful speech. The thing to remember about Dayton is that he has been an active Progressive since 1968 and has fought hard against inequality and injustice for over 40 years. He had the reNEW Minnesota vision decades before there was a TakeAction Minnesota. He's got the same passion for it that Paul Wellstone had. Another thing to remember about Mark Dayton is that he always keeps his promises. No excuses and no exceptions. It's true, too. He really does.

Tom Rukavina - He said he knew he had to give a short answer (3 minutes) but that was okay because short is his middle name (he's only 5'3"). That got a giggle from the audience. He told us that he fought for the minimum wage at the legislature (he's been a representative for 23 years). He said that he's always trying to lift people up. He knows that whites are more likely to be treated medically than those of other races and ethnicities. He states that he will never forget where he came from. His parents were immigrants to the Iron Range. If he forgets where he came from, he won't know where he's going. And he does know where he's going. Straight to the governor's office. Another chuckle. I don't think Rukavina answered the question. He may or may not understand the vision of reNEW Minnesota, but we won't know for sure if he doesn't answer the questions. Rukavina is a Good Old Democrat. These were the guys who used to always dance around the questions put before them. This won't work for reNEW Minnesota members. This is a group of intelligent people who are just sick and tired of the way Minnesota has been run for the last twenty years. We want a change and we will elect a governor who will make that happen and who will govern with us.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher - She said that Minnesota has a huge need to do more health prevention. She talked about the State Health Improvement Program. She's right that this is an excellent program. It's not enough, though. She wants health insurance to cover health care. Most of us want health care instead of health insurance. She talked about innovation. She talked about needing permission from the Feds. I do remember hearing previously that the states might need Federal permission before going ahead with a state single payer plan. Perhaps someone could enlighten me on that. She wants to make sure that all women have access to mammograms. I think that Kelliher is grasping to understand the reNEW Minnesota vision but she's not there yet.

That was the end of the answers from the candidates for the first question. The second question had to be answered either yes or no. Period. No elaboration was allowed.  The question was this: Would you support mandatory, statewide collection and dissemination of health data by racial and ethnic subcategories in Minnesota in order to crreate an accurate picture of health for all groups living in our state?

All the candiates answered yes except for Leslie Davis, who emphatically said no. As you recall, he was the only GOP candidate.

Let me again point out that the question was meant to find out if the candidates would support mandatory gathering and collecting of data by the state and was by no means meant to imply that it would be mandatory for each individual to answer the questions. Individuals would be able to opt out of answering all or any of the questions on any health data survey. In discussing this with my colleagues at MDH, it was wondered how this could be achieved, for if some did not answer all or part of the questions, it could skewer the results. There would have to be a scientifically based margin of error.

At this point in the program all the candidates left except for the ones who were also key legislators in health care reform. These included Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Paul Thissen and John Marty. Non-candidate legislators in attendance who joined them in the front of the room were DFL Representative Thomas Huntley (District 7A) and DFL Senator Linda Berglin (District 61).

Sarah Walker then gave a talk about GAMC. She explained that it was a medical program for people who make less than $8,000/year. She also gave examples about certain groups of people and individuals who will be greatly affected by the removal of GAMC. For example, when people are released from jail, they are only given three days worth of medications they may be on. For psychiatric and other patients, this can be a disaster. Not taking psychotropic medications that have been prescribed can be dangerous to the community as well as to the patients themselves. The loss of GAMC will have an impact on all of society. Another reason to keep GAMC is that those who no longer have it will receive charity care at hospitals and emergency rooms, which will make medical costs rise for everyone.

Robert Fischer then told his story. He was a man with a family and a job when he lost his job and his insurance benefits. He went on GAMC. He then lost his home through a mortgage scam. He found himself homeless. Losing GAMC was devastating to him.

Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher spoke of Governor Pawlenty's line item veto of GAMC. Then legislator Paul Thissen stated that Pawlenty had crossed a moral line. Cutting GAMC is morally and ethically wrong. Thissen definitely understands the problems that will arise from GAMC demise. Representative Thomas Huntley reinterated that with the loss of GAMC, the people of Minnesota will pay one way or another, mostly through increased property taxes and uncompensated care. Senator John Marty said in no uncertain terms that losing GAMC will kill people.  He stated that health care should be a right that no one can touch. Senator Berglin told the audience that once our infrastructure crumbles, we won't be able to get it back. She said that the legislators have found revenue that Governor Pawlenty and the Republicans should be okay with. We all have something at stake with the loss of GAMC. All of us, and not just the GAMC recipients.

Tarryl Clark was there. She spoke as well. She pointed out that no one should need an attorney to get health care. People drastically affected by the loss of GAMC are veterans, poor women and the homeless.

Scott Muskin, a TakeAction member, stated, "I'm tired of living in a Thank God it's Not Me state." As is anyone with a conscience. Some are guilty of the removal of GAMC, but all are responsible.

That wrapped up the evening. The audience was given time to complete the forms that indicated our support of reNEW Minnesota. When we were finished completing them we held them high in the air to show the legislators and the audience (and the Republican cameras in the back of the room) that reNEW Minnesota is a political force to be reckoned with.

The evening was very successful. I'm proud to be a member of reNEW Minnesota.

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