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Health care dominates discussion at legislative forum

Although House and Senate candidates for Minnesota's 21st District unanimously named health care as their No. 1 concern, each differs in approach to tackling what some have called a crisis throughout the state.

Republican Mike Goggin and Democrat incumbent Matt Schmit, who will square off for Senate District 21, joined House District 21A candidates Lisa Bayley and Barb Haley Thursday for a candidate forum hosted by Red Wing Area Chamber of Commerce, Noontime Kiwanis and the Red Wing Rotary.

Republicans Goggin and Haley agreed the state should allow tax deductions on individual premiums and push for more transparency in health care costs.

Goggin said the state government must first evaluate the underlying problems of MNsure, which he said, along with the Affordable Care Act, "sent the health care industry into a tailspin."

"We also need to work to do root-cause evaluations, I do those at work all the time," he said, referring to his job as an electrical engineer. "Figure out what the underlying cause is — what went wrong, what went right and build upon what we can fix."

He also hopes to work with different levels of government to address struggles associated with the Affordable Care Act.

"We need to work with them to get them to understand what our state's going through and get that dialogue going, get that bipartisan work on there, and work with federal representatives to help change the Affordable Care Act to move forward," he said.

Among the priorities Haley outlined to alleviate the state's health care woes were allowing tax deductions for individual premiums, working with southeast Minnesota insurance providers to lower costs, and working with businesses to incentivize employee's accountability for their health.

She also emphasized her support for moving to a federal exchange and "cut our losses" from MNsure.

"MNsure is a portal that was built to replace the (Department of Human Services) system. The state did a horrible job and it doesn't work," she said. "They have no electronic data interchange with people enrolled for health insurance to tell the insurance companies that someone has enrolled in health insurance."

Bayley isn't ready to scrap MNsure just yet. She said Minnesota should work to whittle down health insurance costs rather than joining the federal exchange now, a move she said would simply "outsource" the state's health care problems.

She suggested offering temporary relief to families most immediately affected by the rising premium costs, pointing to potential sources like the state's surplus funding or tax collected from tobacco companies.

Southeastern Minnesota's particularly high costs, she said, call for solutions such as a federal waiver to reroute borders to insurance districts.

"We've got to combat this with a big picture of that, not just tweaking it in small ways with grants or things like that," she said.

Schmit stressed he believes the solution to Minnesota's high insurance costs is best left to the state, despite MNsure's flawed execution. When the bill reached the Senate in 2013, he said senators faced two options.

"We could either go in for the one-size-fits-all federal exchange, or we could go on Minnesota's history in innovation and health care and have our own state-based exchange," he said. "We made the decision to move forward because we think Minnesota can handle this problem better than the federal government can."

MNsure, he said, is a symptom rather than the cause of underlying health care problems in Minnesota including cost-drivers and an individual market.

Rail issues

In their responses to a question about high-speed rail, both Senate candidates agreed the proposed line linking the Twin Cities to Rochester must benefit — not cost — southeastern Minnesotans.

Although the Minnesota Department of Transportation suspended work on Zip Rail studies in January, the agency issued permits for Bloomington-based nonprofit North American High Speed Rail to conduct a feasibility study for a privately funded high speed rail through Goodhue County.

"I am firmly against high-speed rail development unless there are tangible benefits for folks who live along the corridor," Schmit said. "We can't just be fly-over territory in southeastern Minnesota."

As MnDOT considers how to navigate the privately funded, multibillion-dollar proposal, Schmit said he's pushed the department to "promote transparent structure of accountable public engagement every step of the way."

He later vociferously defended his voting record to protect the region.

One of his biggest frustrations, he said, has been federal preemptions relating to rail law in Minnesota.

"In this issue, it's so important for us to rally around things the state can do, positive things we can promote, and not demagogue the issue or grand-stand and make promises that the Legislature simply cannot deliver," he said.

If elected, Goggin said he would introduce a three-part plan to address high-speed rail in southeastern Minnesota. The first step would be to bar the use of any government funding for the project, which he said should be totally privately funded.

He would also focus on eminent domain and said he would work to adjust century-old federal rail laws.

"We have to work with our federal representatives to get that changed," he said. "It's an early 1800s law that needs to be changed: times have changed, transportation has changed."

For the final step, Goggin again drew from his experience working at a nuclear power plant.

"Every U.S. nuclear power plant has to have a fully-funded decommissioning fund, so that when the plant reaches the end of it's life, it's taken back to the ground," he said. "That's what's got to happen with this zip rail: if it does come to fruition, it's not to big to fail. We need to make sure that the taxpayers are covered so that we don't get stuck with the costs."

Transportation

During discussion about transportation, both House candidates commended Rep. Tim Kelly for his work the past two sessions on a bipartisan transportation plan that both parties stymied in the final week.

Haley said she hopes to build upon Kelly's efforts with the plan, which she praised for its solutions to both long-term and current transportation challenges.

"From my experience in the past nine months door-knocking and talking with citizens, we need the roads and bridges fixed," she said. "We need to support our businesses, to transport our goods, we need to support farmers to transport their materials and the rest of us getting to and from work and school."

Bayley said she supports the rerouting of existing funds to a dedicated transportation source.

"We need to look at revenues that are already coming in that are misdirected, that should have been directed toward transportation or if there are new funds needed," she said.

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