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Senate approves health bill with MinnesotaCare expansion
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Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, the author of the health and human services budget, says MinnesotaCare was created to help people who didn't earn enough to afford private health insurance, but made too much to be on Medicaid or general assistance medical care. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The Minnesota Senate has passed an $8.7 billion omnibus health and human services budget, funding everything from nursing homes to health insurance programs to drug treatment. The measure is dramatically different from the budgets proposed by House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty, which would cut at least 27,000 people from state subsidized health insurance.

St. Paul, Minn. — The negotiations for an end of session deal got a little bit tougher when Senate DFLers went in a different direction from House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty.

Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, says her caucus is frustrated by the proposed cuts to health and human services programs. She says those programs can't handle any more cuts after lawmakers made substantial cuts to the budget two years ago.

"There were $2.1 billion worth of cuts in this budget in 2003 to our hospitals to our nursing homes; to all of our nursing homes that deal with the people who are in the shadows of life. We can't forever go there. We can't keep doing it," she said.

The DFL budget would not cut anyone from MinnesotaCare, a state subsidized health insurance program for the working poor. In fact, it would allow more adults without children to enroll in the program. Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans are proposing to cut all adults without children from MinnesotaCare.

If you believe that that is our number one priority, even at the expense of K-12 education... well this bill is great for you
- Sen. Brian LeClair

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, the author of the health and human services budget, says MinnesotaCare was created to help people who didn't earn enough to afford private health insurance, but made too much to be on Medicaid or general assistance medical care.

"People are paying premiums and they're paying premiums on their ability to pay and if you cut them off, as you and the governor would like to do in their bill, they won't be paying for their health care. They'll be waitiing and hoping and praying they don't get sick and then they'll end up in an emergency room when they do get sick. And then they'll get such a huge bill from the hospital that they'll give up and they won't be able to pay it," she said.

Berglin's plan would also increase payments to long-term-care facilities by 2 percent annually over the next two years. Her bill would not cut payments to hospitals and pharmacies like the budget proposed by Gov. Pawlenty.

Critics say the Democrats' bill is too expensive for a state facing a deficit. Sen. Brian LeClair, R-Woodbury, says the health and human services budget is growing too fast. He says it needs to be reined in to in order to pay for other state programs.

"If you believe that that is our number one priority, even at the expense of K-12 education, even at the expense of higher education and public safety, if you believe that welfare health care is the number one priority in state government, well this bill is great for you," he said.

LeClair's comments raised the ire of several Senate Democrats who said LeClair is trying to demonize those on state health programs. They also said it's possible to increase funding for health care programs and education.

While Senate DFLers are proposing budgets that would spend more on health programs, schools, and transportation, they haven't said how they'll pay for the increase. Republicans, like Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie, say it's irresponsible for Senate DFLers to not fully explain their budget.

"We've had the governor's proposal for health and human services on the table since February. We've had an opportunity to see what he's proposed and how he's proposed to fund it. We have still not seen how we'll see how these proposals will be funded," Hann said.

The Senate bill now has to be reconciled with the House health and human services proposal. For his part, Pawlenty says it will be difficult to negotiate their vast differences.

"The health and human service issue is a big issue and how we get this session resolved is going to rise and fall on that very issue. We're trying to slow it down to something that is sustainiable for the long haul. We can't keep spending the way we're spending with a 29-percent increase and not have it be a big problem for our kids and our grandkids," Pawlenty said.

Senate DFLers say they aren't willing to move on their position. Sen. Berglin predicted that they won't agree on a deal by the May 23 deadline for adjournment if House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty continue to push for cuts to state health programs. She says she's also not making any summer vacation plans.

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