In Budget-balancing Act, Senate Cuts Health Programs

Tens of thousands of poor, disabled and elderly Minnesotans could lose state-funded health care under a Republican bill senators approved as part of their efforts to balance the state budget.

The bill, which passed 37-26 Wednesday night, cuts $1.8 billion from what had been expected to be spent on health and welfare programs. The House has yet to vote on a similar bill, but Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has strong concerns about both.

The Dayton administration estimates 100,000 people would lose Medical Assistance coverage by 2015 under the bill, although some still could receive reduced medical aid.

The health and human services measure is the most complex budget bill lawmakers will consider.

It also is the most confusing, given that it makes deep cuts in some programs but still spends more overall than in the current two-year budget. That is because health-care costs are soaring so much that even the 6 percent increase Republicans put into the budget falls far short of enough money to keep all programs intact.

The bill would spend $10.8 billion in the next two years, up from the current $10.1 billion. If the bill did not make cuts in many programs, spending would be $1.8 billion higher than in the Senate bill.

“The path we are on we cannot sustain,” Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said, adding his bill is a first step to changing one of the state’s largest spending areas.

“This bill is a significant reform in the way that public health care is carried out in Minnesota,” Hann said.

Dayton’s office reported that other than the 100,000 who would lose Medical Assistance help, 86,000 more Minnesotans would lose coverage from a variety of programs in 2013. Republicans say many of them would receive vouchers to allow them to buy private health-care insurance.

However, Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said the vouchers would not provide enough money for them to afford health care they need because expenses not paid by insurance would be too high for them.

The state would end up paying more, she said.

“You are going to the emergency room instead,” she said, which would cost the state more than the cuts save.

Berglin, a long-time DFL health-care leader, said parts of the GOP plan violate federal law, putting at least $600 million in jeopardy.

Also, she said, federal money the bill uses to fund state programs likely would not be available.

Berglin complained that the bill contains too many questionable funding sources: “If you have phony baloney coming in, you are going to have phony baloney coming out.”

Sen. Gretchen Hoffman of Vergas joined other Republicans in supporting the bill because it removes Minnesota from a new federal health-care policy supported by President Barack Obama.

“If we let the federal government come in any more to our state, our health care system will get that much more messed up,” Hoffman said.

The bill also:

— Requires people to live in Minnesota 60 days before getting several types of welfare payments.

— Cuts or eliminates programs ranging from those helping families of the disabled to subsidizing adoptions.

— Gets rid of a program that forgives education loans for medical personnel who locate in areas where it is hard to attract medical professionals.

— Eliminates coverage in several programs for chiropractic, podiatry, glasses and prosthetics.

— Bans human cloning (similar to a provision in a higher education bill lawmakers already passed).

— Freezes payments for long-term care and services for the disabled.

— Does not fund the Minnesota sex offender program’s expected increase in patients.

— Maintains funding for Meals on Wheels, which had been pegged for a 25 percent cut.