ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Mark Dayton shared the podium with tea party protesters on Wednesday as he completed his first official act — deepening Minnesota’s participation in the federal health care overhaul by expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor.
The Democratic governor turned his first news conference into an impromptu town hall meeting, but laid down ground rules before giving equal time to opponents of the Medicaid expansion who jammed into the Capitol reception room.
“This is a public room that belongs to the people of Minnesota, where all points of view are honored,” Dayton said.
The mood was charged and security was heavy as Dayton signed an executive order extending Medicaid coverage to 12,000 uninsured vulnerable adults and 83,000 others who currently get less generous coverage under other state health care programs.
Minnesota is among a small group of states allowed to draw federal money to cover childless adults now because they already had state health care programs for that population. Most states don’t. So far, only Connecticut and the District of Columbia have opted for the early Medicaid expansion. Starting in 2014, the federal government is slated to extend Medicaid to vulnerable adults nationwide.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, had refused the Medicaid expansion as he took steps to limit the reach of the health care overhaul in Minnesota. But Pawlenty and the previous Democratic-led Legislature passed a law last year allowing the next governor to opt in through executive order, and Dayton had promised during his campaign to do so.
The move is expected to bring in $1.2 billion in federal money for hospitals, clinics and health care providers.
Dayton said the state is projected to save $32 million through mid-2013, even as it spends nearly $400 million in general-fund dollars on the expansion. That’s because even more money will be saved in a separate fund tied to the MinnesotaCare health care program for the working poor. Republicans who now control the Legislature are wary of the additional general-fund spending as the state faces a $6.2 billion deficit.
“This is the step that benefits all the people of our state at no, and I repeat, no net cost to the state of Minnesota,” Dayton said.
Dayton also signed an order rescinding a Pawlenty directive that prevented state agencies from seeking discretionary grants under the health care law.
Rep. Jim Abeler, who heads a House health care spending panel, warned against banking on the federal money coming in.
“Our state has been victimized by promised federal dollars in the past,” said Abeler, R-Anoka.
The new governor was both booed by protesters and cheered by supporters at his news conference. He entered the room wearing a stern expression, warning those there that they would be ejected if they interrupted the speakers.
One of the supporters who spoke was Sarah Anderson, a social worker from St. Paul who said her brother was denied state coverage while he faced a rare cancer. Dayton stepped forward to quiet the room as she talked. She thanked Dayton for signing the order.
“The health care in Minnesota is far more safe and secure because of Governor Dayton’s actions today, leaving this citizen, this social worker and this sister very humbly grateful,” Anderson said.
Opponents cheered and applauded when Jake McMillian, 31, of Annandale, got up to respond.
“Where is the church to help these people because that is the church’s job and duty in social causes? I don’t find in the constitution where the government’s job is to do that. It’s for nonprofit organizations. It’s for the church to do what it rightfully should do,” he said.
Dayton stood by, listening. Then he signed the order.