By Eric Dick, MNAAP Lobbyist
All legislative sessions have their own ‘feel’ for the legislators, lobbyists, and advocates who live in the Capitol during each legislative session. Some sessions are dominated by partisan sniping and fighting, while others see more bipartisan cooperation. A few years ago, it was unusual in that the Capitol was closed for major renovations, and another recent session saw a Republican member of the Senate elevated to serve as the lieutenant governor under a DFL governor. But nothing compares to the 2020 session.
Legislative leaders entered the session in early January with a projected surplus of over $1 billion, with the House DFL intent on investing in early education, while the Senate GOP hoped to pass tax relief. Governor Tim Walz, as well as both the House and Senate, spoke of passing a robust bonding bill. The best-laid plans were quickly scrambled in early March as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Minnesota. It quickly become clear that ‘business as usual’ wasn’t going to work in 2020.
With several staff members diagnosed with COVID-19 in early March, legislative leaders quickly extended the Easter/Passover break by a week to clear the Capitol as they discussed plans on how to continue or even end the session. Ultimately, the House and Senate returned to the Capitol, albeit in a very different setting. All committee hearings were conducted remotely, and both the House and Senate strictly followed the social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). Some legislators voted remotely, while others were spread throughout the Capitol and would come to the floor in shifts to register their vote. Routine roll call votes that normally take mere minutes took 15 minutes or longer. Much of the debate focused upon legislation to address the pandemic’s impact.
Unfortunately, the pandemic did affect the MNAAP’s legislative priority agenda at the Capitol. While we always knew we faced an uphill battle to pass meaningful measures to reduce firearm death and injury and strengthen Minnesota’s weak vaccine laws, it was our goal to educate legislators and prepare to move these important issues forward in 2021. Most notably, our annual Pediatricians’ Day at the Capitol had to be cancelled. With a dramatically smaller field of issues being considered as the pandemic changed the dynamics at the Capitol, pursuing these controversial issues become impossible. Our legislative allies simply didn’t have the bandwidth to raise these issues given the enormity of the pandemic.
The MNAAP did have a big, important win. Our third legislative priority for the session – increasing the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 – is now law. While the federal government increased the age late last winter, the MNAAP and other tobacco control advocates sought passage of a state law to ensure effective enforcement and compliance. This was an important win for the chapter.
The MNAAP saw another big win in the passage of prior authorization (PA) reform. Under the bill, health plans will be required to more quickly respond to PA requests, timelines for appeals are accelerated, “peer to peer” reviews must involve a Minnesota-licensed physicians in the same or similar specialty, and plans must post written clinical criteria for the PA policies. Other provisions protect patients when they change health plans or when their health plan changes PA criteria in the middle of the individual’s contract year. MNAAP President-elect Sheldon Berkowitz, MD, FAAP, offered testimony in support of the legislation in the House.
As of press time for this newsletter, it appears increasingly likely that a special session will be necessary on or around June 12. State law requires the Legislature to be in session should the governor wish to make or extend a peacetime emergency declaration. The current declaration expires on June 12, and most observers believe another extension is likely. The extra time for negotiations between legislative leaders and the governor may make passage of a bonding bill more likely, and there could be further actions related to the pandemic to be considered. Complicating plans is the fact that the 2020 budget surplus has morphed into a projected $2.4 billion deficit in the next biennium.
Given the extraordinary circumstances for the session, passage of Tobacco 21 and prior authorization are no small feats. But our work has just begun.