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Session-opening Save GAMC rally makes its point with the power of the pen

Gov. Tim Pawlenty probably will not run out of ballpoint pens anytime soon.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty probably will not run out of ballpoint pens anytime soon. Hundreds of pens arrived in six baskets at his office today, shortly after hundreds of humans repeatedly chanted “pass the bill” and “sign the bill” in the Capitol rotunda.

On the first day of the 2010 legislative session, advocates for the poor from across the state called on Pawlenty and lawmakers to restore funding to General Assistance Medical Care, a 35-year-old program serving on average 35,000 impoverished adults without children on any given day.

Some legislators have been working feverishly to craft a solution before funding for GAMC runs out at the end of March. While the administration plans to transfer GAMC enrollees to MinnesotaCare, the plan isn’t popular with enrollees or health-care providers.   

As hundreds of folks streamed into the Save GAMC rally, they were given a packet of information, including pens and photos of GAMC enrollees. At the end of the rally, they were asked to toss the pens — 500 were purchased for the event — into baskets for the governor.

The pens are a potent reminder of the governor’s line-item veto last year that killed $381 million in second-year funding for GAMC and set off a storm of protest from not only advocates for the poor but also from hospitals, homeless shelters, and even police and fire departments.

‘Proud of our moral grandeur’

Temple Israel Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Minneapolis urged attendees at the lunchtime rally to “plug into your spiritual audacity” and to be “proud of our moral grandeur.” She cited Isaiah’s challenge to believers to feed the poor and the hungry and to take the needy into their homes.

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Not just Isaiah urged believers to shelter and comfort the poor, Zimmerman said. “It’s the good people of Minnesota like Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone” who helped foster “the good Minnesota tradition we’re proud of and why we live here.”

Linda Slattengren, who said she spoke on behalf of 20,000 registered nurses in the Minnesota Nurses Association, asked that the governor “stop standing between nurses and our patients.” 

“We must ask all of our elected officials — those officials whose health care is assured, whose next meal is guaranteed, those who have a shelter with a bed, that they  must stand with those who are less fortunate,” Slattengren said.

GAMC enrollee Gary Gunkel, a former Army medic whose son just left for Afghanistan, stood outside Pawlenty’s office after the rally with the baskets of pens and later attended a hearing of the House Health Care and Human Services Policy and Oversight Committee. “I’m asking Gov. Pawlenty to recognize the sacrifices members of the military have made and to honor our sacrifices by ensuring we have the access to health care that we need,” Gunkel said in a prepared statement.

Trixie Weddig, a GAMC enrollee from Duluth, traveled by bus with 50 others from the area to show outstate support for the legislation. A Save GAMC rally drew 60 people Wednesday in Duluth, which was “pretty amazing,” Weddig said after today’s rally. She is worried she will not be able to afford her 10 prescriptions a month on the MinnesotaCare program, which does not cap co-pays like GAMC does.

Signs, cameras, reporters

An estimated 700 people attended today’s gathering, filling the floor and the balconies of the rotunda, said Liz Doyle, policy director for TakeAction Minnesota, which helped organize the rally. The group posted a member on the top balcony to physically count the heads, she said.

As cameras clicked and reporters scribbled, attendees held up signs with messages including “Save GAMC” and “Pawlenty’s policies: bad for patients; bad for nurses.” At one point they were asked to hold up photos of GAMC enrollees who have given video testimonials for St. Stephens Human Services.

A councilwoman from Eveleth, Minn., told the rally that the loss of GAMC funding is “not just a Twin Cities issue.” Her town is worried about losing its community hospital and coming up with $1 million to make up for the loss of GAMC reimbursements. Roars went up in the crowd when she asked who came from outstate today.

Toward the end of the rally, an organizer took the podium and pointed to a gigantic version of the last page of a joint House and Senate bill restoring GAMC funding. “In case you didn’t notice, I came in carrying the bill and a very large pen,” the organizer said to an amused and enthused crowd.

Doyle said later that Pawlenty did not emerge from his office to accept the pens and the big version of the bill.

But chances are good that he — and legislators on their first day of the 2010 session — heard the roars of “Pass the bill. Sign the bill.”     

Casey Selix, a news editor and staff writer for MinnPost.com, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com. Follow her on Twitter.