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Published April 22, 2013, 03:08 PM

House expects long $11 billion health budget debate

At least 600,000 more Minnesotans would get subsidized health care under a bill House Democrats expect to pass late tonight or early Tuesday. Republicans complain that even with increased spending for nursing homes and other long-term care programs, more money is needed.

By: Don Davis and Danielle Killey, Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- At least 600,000 more Minnesotans would get subsidized health care under a bill House Democrats expect to pass late tonight or early Tuesday.

Republicans complain that even with increased spending for nursing homes and other long-term care programs, more money is needed.

The House health and human services bill spends nearly $11 billion in the next two years, the second most in state government, only behind public school education. Most of the spending would go to fund health programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.

DFL Reps. Tom Huntley of Duluth and Tina Liebling of Rochester said no individual should see a cut in state-funded health care, but Huntley said some hospitals would take a hit.

To make up for a $150 million cut House leaders ordered in his health bill, Huntley added a surcharge on hospitals to cover much of the cut.

The surcharge would be used to match federal funds that would go to some hospitals. However, Huntley said, the federal money would not cover the surcharge at all hospitals.

“Unfortunately, there are winners and losers,” Huntley said.

Democrats said that their bill adds coverage to many Minnesotans.

“We also improved MinnesotaCare,” Huntley said.

The state-subsidized health insurance program would expand to include Minnesotans with incomes 138 percent to 200 percent of the federally assigned poverty rate.

The poor who earn more than twice the poverty rate could be eligible for federal assistance under new federal health laws.

A highlight of the Huntley bill is raising nursing home and other long-term care program payments 3 percent, allowing them to give wage increases to workers for the first time in four years. Given his budget limitations, Huntley said, that was the most he could fit in, but added that he personally would like to give workers 10 percent raises.

Rural Minnesota Republicans called on Democrats to up funding in the health and human services budget plan, especially for nursing homes.

“It’s very, very difficult to stomach what it’s going to do to the nursing home industry,” Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said of the proposal. “We have a crisis out there in rural Minnesota.”

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said nursing home advocates say current law would be better for them than the proposed budget bill.

Torkelson said there are some funding increases in the House bill, but “they’re crumbs, frankly.”

“Every area in the (state) budget got an increase except health and human services,” Torkelson said, adding Democrats need to evaluate their funding priorities.

“We all need to pull together and properly fund this area,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The rural lawmakers said they will push for a bigger pay increase for caregivers.

Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said many facilities might have to close or could lose good employees if they face cuts or do not get more funding from the state.

“That is simply just not acceptable,” he said.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said that Republicans had the chance to increase health spending two years ago when they controlled the House and Senate.

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