Senate’s Dr. No strikes again
In his administration’s drive to change the health insurance system, Gov. Mark Dayton has found an adversary in the state senator who presides over the committee charged with making the recommendation to confirm or deny his Health and Human Services commissioners.
Last Tuesday Dayton denounced Sen. David Hann, the chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, for taking formal action that blocked the administration’s access to $25 million in federal health care grants. Though Dayton will probably get the money in time, he lashed out at the Eden Prairie Republican’s action as having “unilaterally blocked” funding for sick Minnesotans.
“To have all of that blocked by one member of the Legislature is undemocratic and unconscionable,” Dayton said, later adding, “It’s disgraceful to play election politics with people’s lives.”
Hann, who became chairman last year shortly after Republicans wrested control of the upper chamber from the DFL, said that he wanted a better explanation about the money’s purpose and that Dayton’s commissioners of Human Services and Health indicated to him in private meetings that the grants weren’t to be used to pay for services for sick people.
The Legislative Advisory Commission, which deals with federal funding issues when the Legislature is out of session, is slated to meet on Tuesday and make a recommendation on the federal grants. Afterward the administration can pursue the money regardless of the LAC’s view on the matter.
The antagonism between Dayton and Hann didn’t come out of the blue. Throughout the summer, Hann has criticized the Dayton administration’s pursuit of the new state health care exchange called for in President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act.
At the moment Hann isn’t promising to deny confirmation for either Dayton’s Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger or Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson. But such a play could come next session, depending on how the exchange issue plays out. Hann is already intimating as much.
“My working relationship with both Commissioner Ehlinger and Commissioner Jesson has been, in my opinion, good,” Hann said. “I’ve had conversations, though, to try to make clear that particularly with the exchange issue, we believe [it] needs to be addressed by the Legislature, and we would take a dim view of the administration deliberately going around the oversight of the Legislature to do what it wants to do.
“And to the extent that commissioners are willing to cooperate in doing that,” he added, “that is certainly going to bear on our assessment of their ability to act in a way that we believe is consistent with the law and with the intent and the interests of the public.”
Hann is planning to hold a joint hearing with the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee on the issue of Minnesota’s health insurance exchange.
Free rein for Hann
Hann, who ran for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement in 2010, has become a singular player in articulating the conservative stance on public spending for health care programs. In a caucus that’s known to keep a tight lid on its members when they find themselves in controversial situations, Hann appears to have free rein. One GOP political operative notes that Hann’s strong conservatism gives him a lot of latitude in the eyes of the leadership — unlike moderates in the caucus who have at times have caused internal controversy.
“I think pretty much everyone defers to him on issues related to health care,” the GOP operative said, “so I wouldn’t be surprised if he was moving forward with [questioning the grants], and leadership said, ‘Hey, great, go ahead.’”
“He’s not going rogue,” the source added.
Even though health care has divided Republicans and DFLers for years, Hann represents a split from the typical approach, according to one health care lobbyist. Because the state evenly shares the costs of programs funded partially with federal Medicaid dollars, lawmakers have often tried a variety of ways to draw as much money as they can into the state. Hann, however, has persisted in raising concerns about the long-term fiscal viability of Medicaid and questioning whether the state should pursue the funding, according to the lobbyist, who wished to remain anonymous.
Hann also goes against the grain because his modus operandi doesn’t revolve around preserving health care eligibility and benefits at all costs.
“Some legislators,” the lobbyist said, “have said they want to talk about reform by saying they want to reform state government and change what we’re doing in HHS spending, but they say we don’t want to cut benefits, we don’t want to cut eligibility. We’re not going to cut provider payments, so give us your ideas after that. That’s not the way the conversation starts with Sen. Hann.”
Things are likely to heat up as the administration tries to move forward in creating the exchanges. Late last month, Dayton announced the creation of a Minnesota Health Care Reform Task Force led by Jesson; he also created a commission on health insurance exchanges to be headed by Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. (Commerce is the agency assigned to create the exchanges.)
As Hann watches the administration act, he said he’s concerned that their blueprint, the federal Affordable Care Act, is “counterproductive” to creating a stronger private market for health insurance. It remains to be seen whether the administration can create an exchange that’s market-based enough to win the support of Republicans. It’s also unclear whether the Legislature will propose additional legislation next session to further complicate the federally mandated implementation of the exchanges.
“We’re going to try to look at issues that are practical problems that we face and see if we can find solutions to offer,” Hann said. “Some of those may [hinge] on things that the exchange is trying to accomplish, but maybe you try to do it in a way that’s more favorable to a market solution.”
Personal ambition a factor?
Devoid of any bombastic tendencies and rarely seen without a coat and tie, Hann is in some ways the portrait of a state senator, speaking to policy questions in a fluent, measured, easygoing manner. Talk of higher political ambitions on Hann’s part persist around the Capitol; if there is a lingering rap on his political potential, it is that he doesn’t make a personalized connection with his audience.
In the 2010 race for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement, Hann lacked the charisma of the GOP’s eventual nominee, Tom Emmer, and dropped out after the party’s caucus night straw poll. But he nonetheless left many conservatives in the party establishment and the activist base impressed.
When Republicans won control of the Senate last year, Hann mounted a bid to become majority leader. Though he lost decisively, the former assistant minority leader’s seniority in a caucus dominated by freshmen meant that he was destined to receive an influential chairmanship. Although he had made his mark on education issues, he had served on the HHS committee in the past and was given that gavel.
Early in the 2011 session, Hann introduced the Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act, which sought to roll back Dayton’s executive order taking advantage of the state’s ability to enroll early in the expanded Medical Assistance program. (Medical Assistance is the name for the state’s Medicaid program.) The bill also directed the Minnesota attorney general to go to court to challenge the constitutionality of federal health insurance mandates.
Hann’s health care proposal was more conservative than the bill initially offered up in the Republican-controlled House, where moderate Rep. Jim Abeler is the chairman of the Health and Human Services Finance Division. Hann’s legislation failed to make it out of the Legislature. But his corrosive critiques of the federal government and the 2010 health care law have made him appealing to the Tea Party movement. Indeed, a number of the freshman senators who serve on his committee (including Sens. Dan Hall and Gretchen Hoffman) fall in the Tea Party camp. His popularity among conservatives and his prominence on the hot-button issue of health care have helped fuel speculation that another bid for statewide office is in the cards.
“I think some would say he’s got ambitions possibly to run [for governor again],” the GOP operative observed.
Hann doesn’t rule out another campaign for governor. “Am I interested in having a Republican governor?” he said. “Absolutely. I was a candidate in the past. Would I ever be a candidate again? Well that’s certainly possible. But at this point I’m focused on what I can do in the Legislature.”