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Break Up UnitedHealth Group!

Plus weird new jailhouses, wild MOA jobs, and neat new trains in today's Flyover news roundup.


Who makes too much money and runs a company that’s way too big? This guy!

Welcome back to The Flyover, your daily digest of important, overlooked, and/or interesting Minnesota news stories.

Congress Is Not Happy With MN's UnitedHealth

UnitedHealth Group CEO Andrew Witty appeared before U.S. Congress today to explain why the Minnetonka-based health insurer was vulnerable to a February cyberattack and why it’s taking so long to recover. Today’s hearing made clear that frustrations with the immensely profitable insurance behemoth are truly bipartisan. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) taunted Witty by holding up a copy of the book Hacking for Dummies. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called UnitedHealth “a monopoly on steroids.” (Do not feel bad for Witty—he took home $23.5 million last year.) 

The long-term question, beyond the inquiry into what happened, is whether Congress and federal regulators will decide that UnitedHealth, the largest business in Minnesota and fifth largest in the country, has gotten too big. According to a Washington Post story today, “lawmakers and regulators are beginning to frame UnitedHealth’s sweeping operations as an economic and national security concern.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who chairs the committee that grilled Witty today, has said “I have very serious questions about UnitedHealth’s size and its role in increasing health-care costs,” while Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA), a pharmacist who’d had to deal with UnitedHealth in a professional capacity, has stated bluntly, “It needs to be busted up.” 

UnitedHealth’s growth from Charter Med in the ’70s to the health care octopus it is today went unchallenged by the feds until the Justice Department tried to block its acquisition of Change Healthcare in 2022. (A Trump-appointed judge dismissed the case; it was a weakness in Change’s cybersecurity that allowed the hack.) The company has spent nearly $50 million on lobbying in the past decade, WaPo reports, hiring former lawmakers Trent Lott and Dick Gephardt to speak on its behalf. In defense of its size, Witty said, irrelevantly, “We’re a comparatively small part of the $5 trillion U.S. health system.” Well, fine. And the biggest whale on Earth is a comparatively small part of the ocean’s marine life. But I still sure as hell wouldn’t want to get on his bad side.

Go(d) to Jail, Go(d) Directly to Jail

The new Itasca County Jail, set to open this month, looks pretty snazzy, as you can see from this tour. (For, you know, a jailhouse.) And it damn well should, with a price tag of $75 million attached. There’s just one problem with it. (Beyond, you know, how it represents our country’s deep, abiding commitment to reinforcing the carceral state.) As Pam Dowell writes in today’s Minnesota Reformer, the jail is probably a freedom of religion lawsuit waiting to happen. 

With giant quotes plastered about the place, the interior of the in-process building looks like a Jenny Holzer piece gone wrong, or like your confused MAGA uncle’s Facebook page (with a more tasteful use of fonts, to be fair). And among the displays is a billboard-sized painting of the Ten Commandments. Dowel says the Freedom From Religion Association has already received complaints about this mural. On a less rights-infringing and more amusing note, the jail also displays a George Washington Carver quote, which it attributes to George Washington. Did they think Carver was his married name? 

“Ugh, Don’t Eat the Plants”

Over at MPR today, as part of an ongoing series about everyday Minnesotans and their jobs, Lukas Levin has a nice little interview with interior landscaper James Everhart, who works at the Mall of America. There are over 30,000 plants inside the megamall, and Everhart is one of five people entrusted with caring for them. A perk of the job? They get to ride the rides to make sure you can’t touch the plants. Everhart also shares his regrets about killing two lantana trees when he first started at the job. And then there are the weird problems that only an MOA interior landscaper would face, including calls like, “‘Hey, so and so’s little 5-year-old son ate one of the plants. Is that going to be a problem?’ And we have to be like, ‘Ugh, don’t eat the plants.’” The story doesn’t go into details, but I presume these children did not die. Nice work, James!

Wait, We Can Have Nice Things?

All aboard for choo choo Choo-cago! Amtrak announced today that on May 21 it will begin running the brand-new Borealis line daily from Union Station in St. Paul to Chicago. Alongside the Empire Builder, there will now be two railway options for travelers between Chicago and the Twin Cities. The trains will make the current Empire Builder stops between St. Paul and Milwaukee and then the Hiawatha stops between Milwaukee and Chicago. The trip is expected to take seven-and-a-half hours which, while certainly not on par with high-speed rail, ain't too shabby compared to the six-hour drive that inevitably hits Kennedy Expressway traffic snarls. Coach fares start at $41 one way; funding for the line comes from the 2021 federal Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act as well as state buy-ins. I realize people in more advanced nations like Japan might snicker at how excited we are about this—two whole trains a day running between major metro areas!—but just let us backward rubes celebrate when we can, OK?

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