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Senate Democrats back expansion of state health programs

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) Senate Democrats are headed for a faceoff with House Republicans and Gov. Tim Pawlenty over the MinnesotaCare health plan for the working poor, with DFLers calling for an expansion and Republicans calling for cuts.

A big budget bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday would let more childless adults get MinnesotaCare, allow small businesses to buy insurance for their employees through the program and undo coverage limits enacted two years ago.

"Most people would prefer not to throw 47,000 people off (state health programs) and this bill shows that we don't need to do that," said DFL Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis, the bill's sponsor.

The Republican Pawlenty administration estimates that 27,000 adults would be removed from the system, a much lower number.

The Senate bill would boost health and human services budgets almost 20 percent, or $1.4 billion, to about $8.7 billion over the next two years, said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge. The proposal would keep current spending levels going and add $60 million on top of that.

"That's a huge jump in the budget," Nienow said after the hearing, where the bill passed on a divided voice vote. "The Senate is taking a completely opposite position."

A $427 million gap separates the Senate bill and Pawlenty's proposal, Senate Fiscal Analyst David Godfrey said.

The House package makes deeper cuts to state health programs than Pawlenty proposed, eliminating coverage for about 2,700 parents to put the total number who would lose insurance at almost 30,000.

Dramatic differences between the Senate and House bills signals a contentious debate as the session enters its final weeks. Berglin said she expects a "positive resolution."

"I'm willing to take as long as it takes," she said.

The full Senate will take up the health and human services bill as soon as Monday, while the House version is slated for a floor vote soon, possibly this week, said Republican Rep. Fran Bradley of Rochester, Berglin's House counterpart. Both houses will appoint a conference committee to work out the differences, with the May 23 adjournment deadline looming.

"They will promise all kinds of things," Bradley said. "We bring forward a balanced budget."

Both bills include 2 percent raises for staff in state-funded nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for the next two years. The Senate bill earmarks more money for methamphetamine treatment, while the House package would raise MinnesotaCare premiums and co-payments.

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