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Huntley: Goodbye, with an asterisk

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, is leaving behind his job in St. Paul — but not the health care issues he worked on there.

Following his retirement after 11 terms in the state House of Representatives, Huntley will remain one of the top experts in the state on health care reform and the intricacies of complex public programs. Formerly a professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, Huntley has said he’ll continue working to improve access to health care in rural communities and to address the shortage of primary care physicians facing the state.

Huntley has served as chair of the powerful House Health and Human Services Finance Committee for the past two years, a position he also held from 2007 to 2010.

Always quick to smile and laugh, Huntley has been described as a “lion” of the Legislature. Capitol Report caught up with him on Tuesday at his Capitol office to discuss his experience as a lawmaker and to hear about his future plans.

Capitol Report: What drove you to run for the Legislature in 1992?

Tom Huntley: I was very interested in politics. I had been on the Duluth City Council and on the Port Authority in Duluth, and I was just interested in health care and higher education, so that’s what I decided to do.

I was going against an incumbent, former Mayor Ben Boo, who’s a nice guy, and I started way down in the polls, but I kept moving up as the thing went on and won by five, six points.

CR: What’s your favorite memory from serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives?

Huntley: I have a bunch of them, but I would guess it was 2008, when we passed the health care reform act that included health care homes, chronic disease management. Unfortunately it didn’t include Accountable Care Organizations, because the governor wouldn’t approve that, but that was a step that really got Minnesota out in front of the rest of the country in health care reform. Many of those things ended up in the Affordable Care Act …

What health care homes do is to give reimbursement to primary care docs that are treating people who have a chronic illness — trying to keep them out of the hospital. So that was probably the biggest thing that I did. By the way, the Department of Health just came out with a report here this year that says in Medical Assistance [Medicaid], the health care homes are saving the state 9 percent of what we spend on Medical Assistance. I’ve always [said] you’ve got to measure what you do, look at the results, because we have great ideas that don’t turn out so good, and we need to know that and try something else. But this one is really working.

CR: What did you learn from science that helped you out in politics?

Huntley: It’s a severe handicap for being a legislator.… I know three things: one is the difference between one standard deviation from the mean from two standard deviations from the mean, the difference between cause and correlation, and also I spent some time in my graduate education in Missouri at Washington University in St. Louis, and the Missouri state slogan is “Show me.”

All 90 percent of the legislators think about is an example of ‘one person had this happen to them,’ so this has to be the rule for everybody. The best examples of that are autism caused by immunizations, and before that, when I first got here, it was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome caused by immunizations, and there is no scientific correlation. The guy that did it for autism, an English guy, turned out to have been a fraud and misrepresented his data.

I’ll give you the best example: We had a pediatrician come in, this was back in the early, mid-’90s when sudden infant death was being caused supposedly by immunization and he came and testified that he had an … annual checkup, and so he examined this kid. He said the kid, who was like 2 years old, was perfectly healthy. No problems. Mom was happy. He was dealing with a healthy kid, and then he said to the nurse, “Now he needs the immunizations for blah, blah, blah.”

She walked down the hall to get the vaccines, and before she came back, the kid had his first epileptic seizure. Now, what would those parents believe if that seizure had happened a half an hour later? You would never ever convince them that it wasn’t the vaccine, and that’s something as a scientist that I understand. That mom would be in here crying and testifying and saying how horrible this immunization was, and legislators would listen to that crying mom and do a stupid thing.

CR: Do you worry about a health and human services “brain drain” with you and Rep. Jim Abeler leaving the Capitol?

Huntley: There’s a lot of bright people coming up, and granted they won’t have as much experience, but they will certainly have the ability to level up. We’ve got Sen. [Tony] Lourey and Sen. [Kathy] Sheran in the Senate that are both very experienced in health care, and [in the House] we’ve got Kim Norton, Joe Atkins. I don’t know if he wants to move from Commerce to Health and Human Services, but he did all the exchange stuff, so he really understands that issue.

CR: Why did you decide to leave?

Huntley: Being chair of Health and Human Services is like having 20 balls you’re trying to juggle and keep in the air at the same time. Two of those balls are the two things that I’m really interested in, and not that I’m not interested in a whole bunch of things, but I’m extremely interested in primary care… and then helping rural Minnesota adapt to the health care changes.

The [Minnesota Medical Association] has come out with a study, and there’s all kinds of national studies that say we’re going to have a shortage of physicians, and in particular, a shortage of primary care docs. A lot of our docs are getting close to retirement and the new ones coming in aren’t going into primary care, and the reason is the primary care docs get paid a lot less than some of the specialists…

How do we get Washington to allow us to make some changes? We need to set up an organization that can go to Washington and try to get waivers, and my goal would be actually to get Wisconsin, Minnesota, maybe the two Dakotas to go to Washington together, because we all have the same problem.

CR: Do you think the extensive cuts that HHS has faced over the last few years have been warranted?

Huntley: They hurt a lot. Particularly in nursing homes and long-term care, which is a huge a part of the budget, [something] like 80 percent of the Health and Human Services budget is long-term care … What happens then is you get a rapid turnover, and that leads to very poor care because all these people have individual needs. You know, everybody in a nursing home isn’t the same. They’re all individuals; they’ve got individual problems.

CR: Last session, MNsure was heralded as the biggest health reform in a generation. Did you want to carry that bill?

Huntley: To be honest, I thought it would be better if Joe Atkins would carry it just to spread the thing around so it wasn’t just the health care committee, and he did a really good job.

I don’t often quote Ronald Reagan, but the one Ronald Reagan quote I use is: “You can get a lot done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit,” and my goal is getting stuff done.

CR: What have been the biggest disappointments of your tenure?

Huntley: Just how long it takes to make significant changes and the stalemate in Washington, which is making life more difficult for the states.

CR: Is there anything else you’d care to add?

Huntley: We’re not ranked very high on the quality of our care compared to the other industrialized countries, and we’ve got plenty of room to move to make things better, and we need to do it. How can you beat making people healthier and saving money?

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