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North Dakota senators on board health care reform plan

FARGO -- Revisions to the Senate's health care reform bill in the past week drew the necessary support of previously hesitant North Dakota Democrats.

If the bill is approved, five rural states, including North Dakota, will receive additional funding through Medicare reimbursements because of the inclusion of a "frontier states" amendment drafted by Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan.

With the provision included, Conrad and Dorgan now support the legislation. A final vote to approve the Senate's bill is set for Christmas Eve.

"This is a very exciting moment for North Dakota to get more fair treatment for our hospitals and our doctors," Sen. Kent Conrad said Monday, adding "I'm increasingly positive about this bill."

Conrad and Dorgan opposed previous provisions in the legislation, which had tied a public insurance option to Medicare levels of reimbursement. The senators said that without changing how rural states received Medicare funding, that would have disadvantaged North Dakotans, since the state has one of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country.

Dorgan agreed with Conrad's sentiment Monday, saying their amendment for rural states "will finally put Medicare reimbursements on par with other states."

Under the provision, reimbursements will increase by $52 million a year for North Dakota hospitals and $16 million a year for doctors -- amounting to more than $650 million to the state's providers across 10 years, Conrad said.

"This will close more of the gap between our hospitals and our doctors and (those) in more urban parts of the country," Conrad said.

North Dakota hospitals, such as MeritCare in Fargo, plan today to announce their support for the legislation during a series of statewide press conferences.

Meanwhile, Republicans -- who were unanimously opposed in the Senate's key procedural vote early Monday -- contend the legislation will raise costs, among other problems.

"The provision Conrad and Dorgan snuck into this government-run health care takeover is not the spoonful of sugar that will help this bad medicine go down for North Dakotans," said Republican National Committee spokesman LeRoy Coleman.

Another recent change in the bill deals with the much-debated public insurance option.

Both the public option and a proposal to expand Medicare coverage were removed from the bill in favor of a cooperative type model to compete with for-profit insurance companies, a plan Conrad has touted for several months.

"The way this bill is structured we could have a national not-for-profit that would be available all across the country," Conrad said. "That will mean very tough competition for the for-profit insurance companies."

Provisions from Minnesota's Democratic senators also are included in the latest version of the bill.

A proposal by Sen. Al Franken would require insurance companies to use between 80 to 85 percent of premium dollars on health care costs, depending on the plan, Franken said.

"It holds insurance companies accountable," Franken said.

Both Franken and fellow Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, also a Democrat, support the bill.

Klobuchar's office did not return a request seeking comment Monday.