Opinion editor's note: To avoid any reader confusion that might arise from the commentary below, the Star Tribune clarifies that, according to UCare's spokesperson, it has never been in discussions with Sanford Health or Fairview regarding their proposed combination.
Now is the time — through Dec. 7 — for open enrollment in Medicare Advantage Plans. The most common pitch for people considering changing their coverage during the open enrollment period is "have your medical conditions or needs changed?" since last year.
What if your circumstances have not changed but the essence of your plan has or will?
That is the difficult assessment facing the many people who have UCare as their health plan. Many folks have seen the various stories about the University of Minnesota suing UCare over control of the UCare HMO. UCare wants to change its governance so the university would no longer control it.
People also have seen stories about merger talks between Fairview Health Services and Sanford Health being revived after they were scuttled in 2013 (when Fairview wanted to sell the university hospital to Sanford). What killed that proposal in 2013 was concern over the fate of the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Those concerns have not changed.
If the UCare board is packed and Sanford acquires UCare, moving its assets to South Dakota, it will dramatically change both UCare and the university. Nothing has really changed in the last decade. Selling to Sanford a Minnesota public treasure would still be like selling the public library to Walmart. But even more important is the impact this proposal will have on the elderly people who have chosen UCare as their Medicare Advantage insurer. These people have a right to know exactly what is happening and how it may affect them.
The only way that is going to occur is if the Office of the Attorney General involves itself in the process. The office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said it is monitoring the situation: "Recognizing that the public interest would be best served if the parties could avoid a costly public dispute, the State vigorously advocated for the parties to resolve the dispute outside of litigation," it wrote in a filing submitted in the UCare case.
Is that really the proper role of the "people's lawyer"? Should not the Attorney General's Office be investigating every aspect of these discussions and the impact on the health care of Minnesotans such a takeover would produce? Should not members of the public know exactly what's going on before they make the most important decision regarding their own health care? Should not the people and organizations who have financially supported the University of Minnesota Medical Center for these many years have a meaningful voice in this process, which would move their charitable resources to South Dakota?
I believe the answers to these questions is yes, and I encourage Ellison to take a much more proactive role in a process that could destroy the University of Minnesota Medical Center and irrevocably harm the citizens of our state.
David Feinwachs, of St. Paul, is attorney and former general counsel for the Minnesota Hospital Association and former assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.