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North Dakota's Conrad pitches health care co-op plan

Sen. Kent Conrad speaks about health care reform on Thursday at Fargo's MeritCare. (Sayward Honer/The Forum)

FARGO - North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad called national health care reform a non-negotiable necessity and pitched his idea for health care cooperatives at a Thursday roundtable with Fargo health care leaders.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Conrad said at the MeritCare-sponsored event. "Sitting around and, you know, 'Woe is me,' won't do anything."

Conrad is a key player in health care reform negotiations because of his chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee and membership in the Senate Finance Committee.

The senator concluded a two-day series of roundtables across the state aimed at drumming up support for health care reform in general and his co-op proposal in particular.

Conrad is advocating for the co-ops as a private, nonprofit alternative to a public health insurance option, the most divisive ingredient of Democratic reform proposals.

Tagging along with Conrad was Mary Wakefield, a North Dakota native and influential official in the Obama administration, in the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Conrad spoke of the

76 percent health care cost increase the average North Dakota family is projected to see by 2016 - swelling costs to $20,000 a year per family - and of the rising number of small businesses in the state that cannot afford to offer health coverage.

Some commentators have described Conrad's co-ops as a copout with too little clout to bring down private insurance costs.

The senator lauded the co-ops as a viable way to break the impasse in congressional negotiations. He envisions a national co-op structure with consumer-driven state affiliates that would take about $4 billion in federal money to get going and eventually become self-sufficient.

Without endorsing Conrad's plan, Wakefield commended him for his constructive approach and willingness to reach across party lines.

Roger Gilbertson, president and CEO of the MeritCare Health System and Innovis Chief Administrative Officer Kevin Pitzer both exhorted Conrad to work on fixing the current system, which penalizes low-health care-cost states such as North Dakota with low Medicare reimbursements.

Both health system officials expressed strong support for a bigger national investment in preventative care and patient education.

Tim Mahoney, Innovis chief medical officer and a Fargo city commissioner, spoke about a pilot program with congestive heart failure patients at Innovis that reduced both inpatient and ER care costs by more than 80 percent through patient education, homecare surveillance and a decrease in unnecessary tests and hospital stays.

Kim Schneider of the Multiple Sclerosis Society commended the senator for stressing patient choice at a time when most states are dominated by a single health insurance provider.

"Blue Cross Blue Shield is 90 percent of our market share," Schneider said. "Blue Cross is good, but as you said, competition is better."

Roundtable participants also told Conrad that Congress shouldn't rush health care reform. Conrad concurred: "What's important is that we get it right."