By Danielle Killey and Don Davis
Elderly and disabled Minnesotans likely would be most hurt by proposed cuts to the state’s health and human services budget that caught many lawmakers by surprise, some advocates say.
Budget outlines House and Senate Democratic leaders released this week propose cutting about $150 million from the human services budget.
“That’s a very ugly scenario,” Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said. “I was very let down.”
Sen. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said that while the budget is large, at $11.4 billion and second only to education funding, $150 million is enough to fund many needed programs.
“Ninety percent of my budget is seniors getting long-term care and people with disabilities,” said Huntley, the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee chairman. “That’s where most of the money goes.”
Lourey and Huntley, who will work to craft health budget plans, were not happy with the cuts.
“We have a very bad target we got from leadership,” Huntley said.
“It’s about $300 million less than the governor’s (plan),” he added. “That’s going to be very difficult to do.”
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposes a more than $150 million increase in human services spending.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she has confidence in Huntley’s committee’s ability to find efficiencies and ways to trim the budget.
“We need to look at the changing landscape,” Murphy said, which includes expected more federal aid for various health care programs.
Reforming health care programs should save more money, she added, but the state may need to “strategically cut” to reach the $150 million target.
Huntley said one approach could be to create or increase health care-related fees or cut some hospital funding.
“But all that’s going to do is increase health care costs when we should be working to decrease costs,” he said.
Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, who chaired the House Health and Human Services Committee when Republicans were in charge the last two years, said that the only pot of money he sees for health funding would be to put a surcharge on Medical Assistance, the Minnesota version of Medicaid.
“There are only some fees they can raise,” he said.
The human services budget is quickly rising due to soaring health care costs and has been a prime target in the past decade as state leaders looked for places to cut.
The Democrats’ proposed cuts surprised Abeler.
“I spent the day with my jaw on the floor,” he said. “I couldn’t have predicted this.”
When Republicans were in control, groups that depend on state health funding expected cuts.
“They are not prepared for it at all,” Abeler said of these cuts, adding Democrats made it clear they would raise taxes to support increased spending in the state budget.
Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said she does not have a problem with cuts, but this area actually needs increased funding.
Franson said, especially in greater Minnesota, hospitals and nursing homes are having trouble keeping good employees because of the pay and some people are not getting the care they need.
“They are really struggling,” she said.
Murphy said she expects Republicans to join Democrats in making the changes.
“If they are not willing to make cuts and they are not willing to raise taxes, I don’t know why they are here,” she said.
Health care advocates are pushing leadership to reconsider the cuts, and Lourey said he does not see the numbers as final.
“The targets are just that, targets,” he said. “I’m going to keep working on it.”
All funding committees, including those dealing with health spending, face an April 19 deadline to finish budgets.