Political chatter: Want health insurance deal? Go shopping

State officials tell about 300,000 Minnesotans to go shopping.

In announcing health insurance premium increases ranging from 14 to 49 percent, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and interim MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole repeatedly said that those 300,000 who buy health insurance themselves could save money by comparing policies on MNsure (www.mnsure.org).

Nearly 6 percent of Minnesotans buy insurance on the open marketplace, either through the state-operated MNsure Web-based program or by dealing with insurers.

O’Toole said that many Minnesotans who use her organization’s Web site, and human helpers who are available around the state, could save money and maybe even pay less next year than they are this year.

MNsure gave examples of how their site could lower payments, including for a 60-year-old Granite Falls man. This year, the man received $360 a month in subsidies, which will increase next year to $514 a month. Depending on what plan he picks, he could pay far less than the going rate, or maybe pay nothing at all.

A complicated formula is used to figure subsidies, but MNsure says that a single person earning less than $47,000 annually likely is eligible. A family of four’s income could reach $97,000.

Premiums are based on a person’s age, family size and geographic area. Health care expenses vary across the state and insurance companies usually only serve certain areas.

O’Toole said that when 2016 enrollment begins on Nov. 1, MNsure’s Website will feature a tool Minnesotans can use to compare insurance policies and costs. In some cases, people may find better deals if they switch away from companies they use this year, prompting state officials to urge them to shop around.

For Minnesotans who buy their own insurance, the policies generally are the same on MNsure and directly through insurance companies. However, MNsure next year will not provide platinum plans, the most expensive ones with the most extensive coverage; they will be available through the companies.

Everyone in the state has a choice of at least six insurance companies, each of which offers multiple plans. That is a big difference from a couple of years ago when there was little choice in some areas, such as the southeast with just one company.

Large employers provide insurance for about half of Minnesotans, with small employers providing it to 5.4 percent. State and federal programs serve about a third of Minnesotans.

Disabilities plan OK’d

A federal judge has made one ruling about a state program and promises to rule on another later this month.

Judge Donovan Frank has been in the news about his upcoming order on what the state must do to make its sex offender treatment program constitutional (an order the state promises to appeal), but he just approved a new Minnesota plan to allow people with disabilities to live, learn and work in an setting of their choosing.

Gov. Mark Dayton promised to “continue to work hard to improve life opportunities for Minnesotans with disabilities.”

The key to what is known as the Olmstead Plan is a philosophy that people with disabilities should be allowed to make choices about their lives. The plan allows for more housing, employment and education options integrated with the rest of the community.

“Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan is focused on providing individuals with disabilities more opportunities to experience lives of inclusion and integration in their communities – just like people without disabilities,” Minnesota Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal said.

Good job news

The southwest Minnesota job news is a good-news, bad-news situation, Gov. Mark Dayton says.

The good news is there are plenty of jobs there.

“I have heard for so many years about people leaving southwestern Minnesota and going to Iowa or South Dakota for jobs,” he said. “Now, I am hearing about them being bused in for Sioux Falls, for example, which is great.”

The bad news is that buses are needed because there are not enough homes available close to places like meat packing operations and farm machinery manufacturing plants.

“There is not an easy answer,” Dayton said of the housing situation. “We don’t have resources in state government.”

The governor said the private sector needs to be involved in building new housing.

“I think the workforce housing issue will continue to be an issue as long as our economy continues to expand,” he said.

‘Your Vote Matters’

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon launched a project, Your Vote Matters, to get students now in high school prepared to vote in the next couple of years.

Your Vote Matters includes a new three-lesson unit for high schoolers that teaches students about voting rights, the importance of voting and how to get ready to vote.

“One of my top priorities as secretary of state is to increase civic participation among young people in Minnesota, and there is no better place than the classroom to instill those good habits,” Simon said. “I’m committed to helping educators prepare young Minnesotans to vote anyway I can and look forward to working with both schools and students throughout the state to achieve that goal.”

Return attempts

It appears Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders are finding success in asking defeated state House candidates to campaign in next year’s election.

The 2016 candidates are saying things like this from former Rep. Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake: “After talking it over with my family and hearing from concerned residents across the district, I know this is something our community needs — someone who is going to get work done. The two years I served in the Legislature saw major investments in our rural communities, and it came at a crucial time. We need a Legislature that is going to continue that work, and it’s not happening with our current representation.”

Plenty of Democrats who used to serve in the House are available for 2016 runs because Republicans regained House control in last year’s election at their expense.

Health insurance rate hikes upset state officials

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announces Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, that health insurance rates for individual policyholders will rise 14 percent to 49 percent. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announces Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, that health insurance rates for individual policyholders will rise 14 percent to 49 percent. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesotans who buy their own health insurance will pay more next year, in some cases a lot more.

Officials of the state Commerce Department and the MNsure Web-based insurance sales site Thursday announced insurance rates for Minnesotans who buy their own policies will rise 14 percent to 49 percent. However, that only affects the 5.5 percent of Minnesotans who buy health insurance policies on the open market; most have employer-provided insurance or receive government-paid health care.

The increase prompted strong reaction, ranging from Gov. Mark Dayton predicting that the public would demand that today’s insurance companies “be removed as the providers of health insurance” to his commerce commissioner offering a multi-point plan to keep premiums in check to one insurer saying that even with big increases that it will continue to sustain significant financial loses.

Republicans said the increases were no surprise, and blamed them on Democrats.

State officials stressed the need to shop MNsure, or with insurers themselves, to get the best deal.

“Shop around” was a term Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and interim MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole used. O’Toole said a new comparison tool will be available when 2016 enrollment opens Nov. 1, a tool she said would give Minnesotans a better way to decide what policy is best for them.

O’Toole said that people around the state are available to help people trying to pick a plan.

While rates are headed up in all of the state for 2016 plans, increases varied.

The Commerce Department provided data that showed for a 2016 mid-level plan compared to similar ones this year, rates in western Minnesota will rise faster than in other parts of the state.

In the southwest, the increase will top 40 percent, while the rest of western Minnesota the premium will rise 30 to 35 percent. A Twin Cities resident getting the policy would pay 28 percent more next year, followed closely by a 25 percent jump in the northeast and south-central regions.

The number of policies from which a Minnesotan may pick varies from 29 to 71, depending on where the person lives.

The prices apply both to policies bought via MNsure (www.mnsure.org) or privately through insurance companies.

O’Toole said that in many cases the increases are misleading because Minnesotans may be eligible for federal subsidies that lower insurance costs. A single person earning more than $47,000 could be eligible for the federal aid.

The rates he announced Thursday are “unacceptably high,” Rothman said.

The commissioner offered a plan that he said could help hold down premiums, including looking at how much insurance companies have in the bank and the size of salaries paid top executives.

His boss, Dayton, used stronger language: ““I am extremely unhappy with these extremely high insurance rate increases. The insurance companies, who are responsible for them, will force Minnesotans into plans with less complete coverage or drive them out of the insurance market entirely. … If health insurance companies make good coverage unaffordable for Americans, I believe citizens will soon demand that insurers’ excessive administrative overheads be eliminated, and that they be removed as the providers of health insurance.”

Republicans all along have opposed MNsure and blamed the high rates on the Democrat-pushed plan. However, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he likes part of Rothman’s plan that would lump small businesses in with individuals to create a larger pool that could lower premiums.

“Instead of saving families money and providing Minnesotans more access, MNsure really has cost Minnesotans more money and not really provided the access in health care that was proposed,” Daudt said.

A statement from the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, said its rate increases will not solve fiscal woes.

“We also understand the impact that these necessary price adjustments will have for many of our members,” the statement said. “However, even with these increases, Blue Cross is likely to experience continued significant financial losses through 2016.”

Some premiums for small businesses that provide insurance for employees will fall as much as nearly 13 percent, while some will rise almost 6 percent.

Rothman said that even with the individual policy increases that Minnesota will maintain the lowest Upper Midwest rates and will have some of the lowest in the country.

Minnesota insurance companies this summer submitted plans to increase insurance rates an average of 43 percent, with a high of a 74 percent boost in one plan. Rothman talked insurance companies down, Dayton said, but not as much as he wanted.

MNsure users no longer will have the opportunity to buy the top-level plans, with the most coverage. Insurers will not offer platinum plans next year through MNsure, although they still will be available from private insurers. While the Commerce Department does not have numbers for this year, in 2014, 5.3 percent of MNsure enrollees and 7.9 percent of others who bought private plans went with platinum.

While Rothman can lobby for rate changes, he cannot order them if insurance companies can justify their increases.


Average health insurance premium increase by company in Minnesota (not all insurers offer plans in all parts of the state):

— Blue Cross Blue Shield, 49 percent

— Blue Plus, 45 percent

— Group Health, 31 percent

— HealthPartners, 32 percent

— Medica Wisconsin, 14 percent

— Medica Insurance, 16 percent

— Preferred One, 39 percent

— UCare, 27 percent

Commission places Sandpiper project on hold after court decision

By Robb Jeffries, Forum News Service

Minnesota regulators took the “wait and see approach” Thursday, staying its approval of an oil pipeline with potential courtroom battles looming.

The state Public Utilities Commission voted to suspend its approval of a key permit needed for the Sandpiper pipeline after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the commission erred in not conducting an environmental impact statement before granting a certificate of need.

Now, the commission and objecting parties will wait to see if project proposers and Enbridge subsidiary North Dakota Pipeline Company file an appeal of the court ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court by the Oct. 14 deadline.

The Sandpiper is a proposed 600-plus mile pipeline that would run across North Dakota and northern Minnesota from the Bakken oil fields to an existing Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wis. Enbridge originally forecast construction to begin on the $2.6 billion project to begin in 2016, although prolonged proceedings may push back that timetable a year or more.

The ramifications of indefinitely staying its decision to wait for court proceedings weighed into the commission’s decision to ask petitioning parties to file reports after the court appeal deadline passes.

“I don’t want stalling to become the order of the day,” commissioner Betsy Wergen said. “I firmly believe we have timelines and statues that have already been exceeded … I don’t want to see us become the federal government and just have things laying here. I want to be assured there will be movement forward rather than a three-year stay waiting for a Supreme Court decision.”

The decision to stay the certificate of need also means the North Dakota Pipeline Company’s motion to rejoin the certificate of need and route permitting proceedings will not come to pass. The commission has presided over only five oil pipeline projects in the last 15 years, but it traditionally has granted — or denied — both permits for pipeline projects at the same time.

Sex offender court order expected in October, but case will go for years

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents Minnesota sex offenders, tells jouirnalists Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, that it could be two years before a final court decision on whether the state Sex Offender Treatment Program is constitutional. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents Minnesota sex offenders, tells jouirnalists Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, that it could be two years before a final court decision on whether the state Sex Offender Treatment Program is constitutional. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota officials make it clear they will not obey an upcoming federal judge’s order about how to make the state sex offender treatment program constitutional.

Instead, they will appeal the order, which Judge Donovan Frank will issue in October after ruling in June that the sex offender program violates the U.S. Constitution.

Frank’s June ruling indicates that sex offenders may be committed to the program with no chance to get out, which results in what amounts to an unconstitutional life sentence.

“We continue to believe the program as it is being run today is constitutional and we want to be able to appeal the judge’s ruling … as soon as we can,” Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said after a Wednesday hearing with Frank.

While the state disagrees with the June ruling that the program violates the U.S. Constitution, it has no grounds to appeal it until the judge orders the state to take a specific action, which is expected in Frank’s upcoming ruling.

The ruling will be a key marker in the case, but not the end.

Many Minnesota sex offenders have fought a state treatment program in court four years. Nearly four months ago, Frank agreed with them that the program violates the U.S. Constitution. Next up, the judge is expected to order changes within 30 days. But it could be two years before the issue is resolved.

Everyone sitting in the courtroom for two-plus hours Wednesday knew the final decision likely would not be in Frank’s hands.

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents sex offenders in two state hospitals, said he expects the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide the case a year or two after the state appeals

Just before he adjourned the hearing, Frank made some vague comments about letters he has received from patients in the sex offender program that apparently threatened a disruption at the two facilities.

“Everyone has a job to do,” Frank said. “I am asking everyone to treat people in a civil way. … Let’s see if we can make the system work.”

In an interview, Jesson said she did not know of any specific threat made against the treatment program staff. “I think he was just encouraging everyone to keep calm.”

During the hearing, there was discussion about frustration felt by patients who have been legally committed to the program, held in prison-like conditions for years but with no hope of release.

The program was designed to treat sex offenders so they could be released into the community, but in two decades, no one has been fully released.

Courts commit offenders to the program after they have served prison sentences. Offenders who sued the state say that amounts to a life sentence, more than state law allows.

More than 700 offenders are in the program, which experienced rapid growth after the 2003 kidnapping and death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin at the hands of a Crookston, Minn., man who had just finished his sentence for sex crimes.

Gustafson gave Frank a long list of changes his clients want made, most of which would make it possible for offenders to be released. The state, however, argues that the program is constitutional and changes are being made.

“The governor and I have been supportive of additional reforms…” Jesson told reporters after the hearing. “Our point is the program as it is being run today is constitutional. We ought to be talking about these reforms in the Legislature, and they should not be directed by the court.”

She added: “I believe we are, in careful steps, making progress in this program.”

Gustafson, however, said some reforms “need to be enacted now.”

The attorney told Frank the court has “broad and flexible powers” to change the program. However, he and Frank said that power does not reach the level of a mass sex offender release.

One of Gustafson’s proposals is to require an annual assessment of each patient to see if they are ready for release. He also suggests that workers in the program need more training.


Minnesota prisons overcrowded, but have lower rates than most states

Minnesota Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park, Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park and Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center listen to a testifier Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, as a task force considers state pirson populations. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park, Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park and Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center listen to a testifier Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, as a task force considers state pirson populations. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota imprisons 194 people per 100,000 population, fourth lowest in the country, but the prison numbers are increasing the fifth fastest in the country.

The next lowest number of prisoners in the region is North Dakota, with 214 per 100,000; the country’s average is 471.

Minnesota’s prison growth rate for the past decade is fifth fastest in the country — trailing West Virginia, Idaho, North Dakota and Arizona — and the state is short 565 prison beds. The state Correction Department projects that shortage to more than double to 1,202 by 2022 if nothing is done.

Minnesota had 6,428 prisoners in 2001, 10,116 are locked up this year and the 2022 prediction is for 10,761 inmates.

“I believe Minnesota can do better,” Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, declared at the beginning of a prison population task force meeting he and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, convened Friday.

The task force, made up of legislators and people connected to the prison system, is to look into whether to increase prison beds, examine ways to keep people out of prison or any other solution to the bed shortage.

Task force members did not generally dispute the numbers from the state Corrections Department, but there was a divergence about what should be done. The group is to continue meeting until the Legislature convenes March 8.

Cornish said that many of his constituents see no problem with the prisons, and they prefer locking up criminals.

“It would be a hard sell to the House of Representatives to greatly increase our spending when we have such a good record of incarceration,” Cornish said about the Republican-controlled chamber.

Latz said he wanted to form the task force to examine prisons, even though other lawmakers do not appear overly interested in the topic.

“I haven’t really hard one way or the other…” Latz said. “I can’t say there has been a legislative groundswell from outside these (public safety and judiciary) committees.”

The issue arose, in part, because the Corrections Department is considering asking the state to borrow more than $140 million to add 500 beds to a Rush City prison. However, Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told the task force, Gov. Mark Dayton has not been fully briefed on prison needs and has not decided whether to support the request.

One question was why prison populations rose while crime fell 10 percent in a decade.

The answer is multipart, but a major reason is because legislators have increased prison time for specific crimes, Roy said.

For one thing, lawmakers expanded sex offender sentences after the 2003 Grand Forks, N.D., kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin at the hands of a sex offender just released from a Minnesota prison.

Since 2000, the sex offender population has jumped 466 inmates, Roy’s figures show They are up 1,496 for all crimes against people, including murders and assaults.

Those in for drugs upped prison population by 905 in 15 years, 881 for methamphetamine-related crimes.

In recent years, sentences have increased for some weapons crimes, domestic violence and drunken driving. All added to the prison population.

Those convicted to prison are coming from across Minnesota. Roy reported that prison sentences for greater Minnesota residents are up 8.5 percent, while those in the Twin Cities increased 7.3 percent.

Three of the five counties with the most increases came from outside the Twin Cities: St. Louis, Otter Tail and Douglas.

Corrections Department officials said besides longer sentences, other factors contribute to added prisoners. One of the big factors is how law enforcement agencies and county attorneys decide to enforce the law and prosecute crimes.

Roy said the state is making it through the prison bed shortage, in part, by putting two bunks in cells meant for one. That, he said, added 1,200 beds.

In 2009, 700 beds were added to the Faribault prison.

County jails also house more than 500 state prisoners.

Among options the task force is to consider is whether some prisoners, such as those in for drug crimes, could avoid prison if they were sentenced to treatment programs.


Appleton prison supporters want state inmates

Minnesota Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson tells a prison population task force Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, that a closed private prison in Appleton could be used to house state prisoners. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson tells a prison population task force Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, that a closed private prison in Appleton could be used to house state prisoners. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

The latest proposal to put state prisoners in a west-central Minnesota facility appears more acceptable than when it was a privately run prison, but the plan has a long way to go before state lawmakers are ready to buy in. The plan would have the state lease, or potentially buy, the prison and staff it with state workers.

Swift County has hired a Twin Cities public relations firm to help sell the Legislature on leasing, or maybe even buying, the empty Prairie Correctional Facility at Appleton instead of borrowing more than $140 million to add 500 beds to an existing state prison in Rush City. The Appleton facility, owned by Corrections Corporation of America, has 1,600 beds.

“We feel it is a good opportunity,” Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver said Friday before a prison population task force began talking about a prison overcrowding problem.

Pogge-Weaver heard some state lawmakers insist that the Appleton facility plan be examined, although no one said that was their preferred option. Others suggested that there are ways to send fewer people to prison, thus avoiding the need for more beds, and many said they remain open to all options, including Appleton.

Prairie Correctional supporters have suggested since the facility closed in 2010 that the state should return prisoners there, and Corrections Corporation run it. But Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said Friday that the only way the Democratic-controlled Senate and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would consider using the facility is if the state owned or leased it and ran it with state-employed union workers.

“That has to be the case,” he said.

Still, Cornish said, he could accept double-bunking prisoners instead of reopening Prairie Correctional if that would ease overcrowding woes.

Task force member Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, asked Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy to report back with financial comparisons of leasing the Appleton prison and borrowing money for expanding Rush City’s prison.

Task force organizer Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said the Appleton question will be vetted at the group’s Oct. 21 meeting.

Prairie Correctional held Minnesota and Washington state prisoners for years, before the states took back their inmates and it closed in 2010.

“I think there are some real questions about the effectiveness and safety of privately run prisons,” Latz said, but things would be different with the state running it.

Republicans, in particular, said there could be fiscal problems with expanding the Rush City facility.

Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, said that if the state borrows the expansion money through bond sales at 5 percent interest, the cost would be $25,000 per bed.

“We are talking about a huge amount of money,” he said.

Roy projected that by 2020, with no changes, the state will be short 1,202 prison beds.


Political chatter: Minnesotans of both parties sorry to see Boehner go

One day, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner was at the top of the world with Pope Francis speaking to a joint meeting of Congress after 20 years of the Ohio Republican asking pontiffs do to that.

The next day, Boehner resigned, effective in a month, surprising House members of both major parties.

“Speaker Boehner has a long record of dedicated leadership and I am shocked and saddened by his decision,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said shortly after the decision became public. “His announcement today is a selfless act and Speaker Boehner wanted to do what’s best for this institution and the country.”

Many think Boehner stepped down so he could negotiate a budget deal with Democrats before Thursday, the first day of the new federal fiscal year.

President Barack Obama set the tone for reaction to the news when he praised Boehner for being a “good man” with the interest of the country his priority.

Thirty conservatives within his own party were pressuring Boehner to accept a government shutdown if they did not get what they want in spending bills for a budget to begin Oct. 1.

“It’s become clear to me this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” Boehner told a news conference. “It’s the right time to do it and, frankly, I’m entirely comfortable doing it.”

On Thursday evening as Boehner left the Capitol, he told two reporters — one from Politico and another from the Washington Post — that he had nothing left to accomplish after bringing Pope Francis to the Capitol, Politico reported.

“The resignation of U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner is a snapshot of what politics means to the Tea Party and the far right wing: partisanship at any cost,” Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. “Boehner wanted to govern and avoid a government shutdown and he’s paid the price with his career as a public servant.”

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., often has said that Boehner tries to do the right things, but like Martin, the veteran congressman bemoans the fact that the extremely conservative wing of the Republican Party will not compromise.

Another Minnesota Democrat, Rep. Tim Walz, said he could work with Boehner. “I believe Congress needs more people willing to work across the aisle, not less. At his core, Speaker Boehner believes in the promise of America and has served this institution with dignity for more than two decades.”

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., said the speaker “should be commended for his tireless dedication to his constituents in Ohio and to the American people as a whole.”

Kline, whose name quickly surfaced as a possible short-term speaker, is the closest to Boehner of anyone in the Minnesota congressional delegation.

“He was one of the gang of seven which uncovered the House bank scandal almost 25 years ago,” said Kline, who is not running for re-election next year. “He was a trailblazer in efforts to rid Congress of pork-barrel spending and I am proud we stood together to ban earmarks from the House.”

Electronic filing comes

Minnesota courts will accept electronic files in all 87 counties by year’s end.

A plan just released by the state judicial branch expands to all courts the ability to accept documents by an online portal, as well as serving documents to opposing parties electronically. The change allows those dealing with court to file documents without going to a courthouse.

“The eCourtMN Initiative is the largest transformation in the 150-year history of Minnesota’s Judicial Branch,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea said. “This initiative will produce new efficiencies in our justice system and increase on-demand access to information for the public and our justice partners.”

The electronic system is used in Cass, Clay, Cook, Dakota, Faribault, Hennepin, Kandiyohi, Lake, Morrison, Ramsey and Washington now as part of a pilot project to get the bugs worked out.

Broadband money sought

Forty-four entities have asked for state money to expand broadband high-speed Internet in rural areas.

Those applications seek $29 million, but just $10.6 million is available.

“With grant requests nearly triple the available funding, it’s clear that the need for investment in rural broadband access is significant,” Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said. “The $10.58 million available this year is a start, but it’s essential that the Legislature provide sufficient funding next session.”


Prevent a fall, play with invisible ball

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger take part in a tai chi demonstration Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, as part of an event drawing attention to the need to prevent falls. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger take part in a tai chi demonstration Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, as part of an event drawing attention to the need to prevent falls. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

To someone walking in late, dozens of people sitting in folding chairs may have looked like they were part of a mime class.

It would have been pretty obvious to the latecomer that each was pretending to hold a beach ball. But to those of us entering senior citizen status, as well as those well into that part of life, the exercise could be a lifesaver.

Dr. Fuzhong Li of the Oregon Research Institute Wednesday led the group, including many far from senior status, in a demonstration of tai ji quan, a gentle Chinese exercise that can help prevent falls.

On a per-person basis, Minnesota has twice as many fatal falls as the national average, with even more along the Rochester-to-Twin Cities-to-St. Cloud corridor (although rural areas report fatal falls at the national average).

The invisible beach ball exercise was part of a state-sponsored event, intentionally scheduled on the first day of fall, to emphasize the need to prevent older adults from falling and to prevent them being afraid of falling.

While Li promotes exercise, he said that is not enough. Li and others went through a list of things aging people should do:

— Modify the home. For instance, good lighting is essential, throw rugs probably should eliminated and rooms should be organized to prevent falls.

— Vision is vital. Li said many older people have problems seeing side to side, so part of his exercise instruction includes being aware of what is around them.

— Medication can contribute to falls. Li said three or more medications can contribute to dizziness and other issues that lead to unsteadiness.

— Activity was emphasized Wednesday, especially the tai chi-like program Li teaches. It is a mild exercise that allows senior citizens, among other things, to become comfortable walking.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said one of the issues seniors face is the fear of falling. “If you are afraid, you tense up.”

If someone is concerned about walking, and muscles are tense, the chance of a fall could increase.

Ehlinger and aide Mark Kinde said they do not know why Minnesota has more fall fatalities than other states, but they are working with Wisconsin on a study about the issue.

“The rates are more than doubling every five years,” Kinde said.

The health leaders also do not know why the Rochester-to-St. Cloud corridor has the highest fall fatality rate or why rural areas match the national average.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said the Board on Aging, which is under her purview, has made reducing falls “a real priority.”

While the state always ranks at or near the top in overall senior health, falls remain a concern.

Progress is reported in reducing nursing home falls. The state provides extra funding to nursing homes that participate in a fall-prevention program.

Jesson said the issue becomes more important over the years because between 2010 and 2030 the number of Minnesotans 65 and older will double.

Besides a pain issue, Jesson and Ehlinger said the cost to treat fall victims continues to increase.

The National Council on Aging claims that tai chi participants have 55 percent reduction in falls.

Looking like a mime holding an imaginary ball may seem may seem like a far-fetched way to reduce fall risk, but health officials say it has proven effective.

“Holding the ‘ball’ involves weight shift,” Li said. “As you get a ‘ball’ flying, you get side-to-side weight shift. Weight shift helps prevent falls. Lots of seniors fall because of their inability to shift weight.”

Tai chi instructor Paul Ryberg of Lake Elmo participates in a Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, St. Paul event promoting fall prevension, especially among Minnesota's elderly. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Tai chi instructor Paul Ryberg of Lake Elmo participates in a Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, St. Paul event promoting fall prevension, especially among Minnesota’s elderly. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Dayton calls for St. Cloud human rights office

St. Cloud needs a state human rights office, Gov. Mark Dayton said Tuesday as questions mount about economic differences between white and black Minnesotans.

“I promised I will put that in my supplemental budget,” the governor told reporters about spending adjustments he will propose when state legislators return to St. Paul next March.

The state Human Rights Department had a one-man St. Cloud office, funded by state and other money, which recently closed when the employee resigned. Dayton wants to establish a permanent office in the city that has had a history of racial tension.

A St. Cloud office would be the only one other than the department’s headquarters in downtown St. Paul.

Racial incidents have been reported in St. Cloud for years. Earlier this year, federal Education Department officials were in town as part of their regular monitoring since a 2010 civil rights incident. Other incidents have been reported at St. Cloud State University and elsewhere.

The Human Rights Department’s job is to reduce discrimination and to make sure businesses seeking state contracts obey equal employment laws.

On Monday, Dayton acknowledged that the racial makeup of greater Minnesota communities is changing, with immigrants and citizens with varied ethnic backgrounds moving there.

The governor said he will address “opportunities for people of color throughout the state to have full opportunity and be paid commensurate with others.”

An emphasis on racial financial disparities began last week when a U.S. Census Bureau report showed household income for black Minnesotans last year was $4,000 less than a year before, the only racial class that fell. It showed that blacks earn half of what whites are paid.

The unemployment rate for Minnesota blacks stands at nearly 16 percent, compared to a 4 percent overall rate.

State Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, said the report suggests state officials do not take the problem seriously. He criticized Dayton for suggesting a special legislative session because of a lack of walleyes in Lake Mille Lacs, but not for fiscal problems the state’s black population faces.

Leaders from both major political parties agree that black students in Minnesota schools do not receive education as good as received by others.

On Tuesday, Dayton met with NAACP chapter leaders from around the state, a meeting planned before the census report was released. He said that he will meet with them again.

Dayton said he was surprised by the census numbers. “The disparities are very, very distressing.”

He said that state councils dealing with minority issues need broader participation from those they serve. He said he is working to get more minorities involved in government, from hiring them to getting them to sit on state boards.


Taiwan agrees to buy U.S. grain

Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota farm leaders and members of a Taiwanese delegation sign paperwork Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, in which the island country promises to buy $2.5 billion worth of American corn and soybeans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota farm leaders and members of a Taiwanese delegation sign paperwork Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, in which the island country promises to buy $2.5 billion worth of American corn and soybeans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Taiwan is on a small island, depending on the American farm belt for much of its grain, so officials from there on Monday signed documents in Minnesota indicating they plan to buy up to $2.5 billion worth of corn and soybeans in the next two years.

Su Ye of the Minnesota Agriculture Department said the agreements, already officially signed in Washington, do not specify how much each state’s farmers will receive from Taiwan. But she estimated that Minnesota farmers can expect about $250 in corn and bean sales.

The corn deal includes 197 million bushels of corn and 500,000 metric tons of a livestock feed produced as an ethanol byproduct. Up to 107 million bushels of American soybeans also are to be sold.

In a separate agreement, Taiwan agreed to buy $544 million worth of wheat, which will include grain from Minnesota and North Dakota.

Gov. Mark Dayton, two Minnesota farm leaders and three of the 20-member Taiwanese delegation that visited Minnesota Sunday and Monday signed documents pertaining to the corn and soybean deal in a state Capitol complex ceremony. The Taiwanese delegation held similar ceremonies in Iowa and Illinois.

More than 98 percent of grain used in Taiwan must be imported, said Cheng-Taung Wang, head of the visiting delegation. It is used for livestock feed and making food products such as tofu.

He said Taiwanese agri-business leaders like America’s high-quality grain. “Also, you have a very wonderful transportation system.”

Northfield-area farmers Bruce Peterson, representing corn growers, and Keith Strader of a soybean group emphasized they use conservation practices on their farms to preserve soil and to reduce water pollution.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said conservation is important to Taiwanese purchasers.

They also are interested in whether grain is genetically modified, a controversial issue in Europe and other regions. Wang told Forum News Service that modified grain is used for livestock feed, while non-modified grain is used for food.

Keith Schrader, chairperson of the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council said 40 percent of the beans he raises are not modified, and are destined for the Asian tofu market.

Taiwan is Minnesota’s sixth largest agricultural export market, following China, Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea.

Frederickson led Minnesota farm leaders on a trip to Taiwan two years ago. He said he hopes to return.

“Trade is about building relationships,” Peterson said.

Added Dayton: “Our trade relations around the world, including Taiwan, are crucial to ensuring that our farmers can sell their products in the global marketplace.”

Wang said Taiwan leaders have traveled to the United States since 1988 to sign documents expressing their intent to buy American farm products.

“Taiwan and Minnesota have endured cultural tied since they established a sister state relationship in 1984,” he added.


Cities apply to make police body camera videos private

Minnesota legislators could not decide whether video from police-worn body cameras should be public, so cities across the state are asking the Dayton administration to keep most private.

Sixteen cities this week asked Administration Commissioner Matt Massman to order that the video be private until legislators can settle the issue.

“This will help guide and direct us as we plan for and implement this project in policy making, training and cost considerations,” Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston said in a letter to Massman.

Brainerd is among 16 cities asking for the ruling, while nine others offered support to the request. If a ruling makes the videos private, it could extend to all Minnesota law enforcement agencies.

Executive Director Chuck Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said his group supports body cameras, but making the video private would hurt police.

“If you make it all private, people will think, in many cases correctly, you are only using this to spy on people,” Samuelson said, as well as making it look like law enforcement officials have something to hide.

Maplewood, lead city in the data information request, finished the paperwork to apply to the state late Monday. Massman has up to three months to decide.

If the commissioner decides the data will be private, the attorney general would review the issue and could overturn his decision.

Cities that filed the application may consider the data private immediately, but it would revert to public if the commissioner rules against their application.

The cities’ request would allow civilians in a video to request that it be made public.

Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell told Massman in a letter that without considering privacy “this technology has the potential to undermine the very nature of the relationships law enforcement as a profession is working to develop with the communities they serve.”

The argument is that people would be reluctant to talk if they know they are being recorded. In other cases, police say, some video scenes may be inappropriate for public viewing.

A resolution from the Farmington City Council indicates that its police began using body cameras in 2014 and the department “seeks to expand use of body worn camera technology.”

Police Chief Scott Johnson of Grand Rapids wrote: “Today, any citizen can walk into their local police department and demand this data. With few exemptions law enforcement must release it.”

Like other police officers, Johnson said that the availability of the video provides virtual access into people’s homes.

“This could be used to intimidate them or undermine their safety,” Johnson added.

Worthington Chief Troy Appel urged Massman to approve the temporary private data classification, saying it would “be a great opportunity to demonstrate how effective local law enforcement truly is.”

Appel said that his department has been waiting to buy body cams until the Legislature decides what to do with the video. But the city might go ahead and buy cameras if Massman rules in the cities’ favor.

Samuelson said the ACLU is conflicted with body cameras, but back their use because they could help of police officers in a time when their public support is waning.

“We have come to the conclusion right now that body cameras are the best way to create the transparency that we believe police need,” he said.

Samuelson said that state law already restricts what can be made public. For instance, data in a criminal case under investigation is private. However, data, including video, can be made public when a case wraps up.

“The majority of stuff the camera captures has to be public” eventually, Samuelson said.

Cities that are part of the application to declare most police body camera videos private are Aitkin, Baxter, Big Lake, Brainerd, Brooklyn Park, Burnsville, Farmington, Grand Rapids, Jordan, Maplewood, Montevideo, Onamia, Richfield, Rochester, St. Anthony and Starbuck.

Cities that offered support for the application are Bloomington, Duluth, Eden Prairie, Madelia, Maple Grove, Mounds View, Oak Park Heights, Plymouth and Worthington.

Court overturns initial state Sandpiper approval, orders environmental study

Minnesota regulators must rewind their work on the Sandpiper crude oil pipeline after a state Appeals Court panel Monday overturned a June decision that the project is needed.

The judicial panel ruled that a comprehensive environmental study about the pipeline’s impact as it crosses northern Minnesota must be completed before the state Public Utilities Commission decides the pipeline is needed.

The decision means that after the environmental impact statement is completed, the commission may reconsider issuing the “certificate of need” it already approved on June 5. If it is approved again, the commission may proceed to approve a specific route.

The court ruling’s impact on Sandpiper was not immediately clear. State and pipeline company officials said they are evaluating the court decision and offered no specific comments on how it could affect the construction timeline or whether the ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

“The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is reviewing today’s Minnesota Court of Appeals opinion … in consultation with the Minnesota attorney general’s office,” PUC Executive Secretary Dan Wolf said in a Monday email to Forum News Service. “The commission will be carefully evaluating its options and considering how to proceed relative to next steps and timeline.”

A spokeswoman for Enbridge Energy Partners, the company proposing the new pipeline, said the company feels it is the safest way to transport crude oil.

“The prior direction from the state was that there is sufficient environmental review within each phase of the regulatory process…” Enbridge’s Lorraine Little said. “We will evaluate our options for next steps with this important project.”

An Enbridge subsidiary plans a pipeline from western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields to an Enbridge hub in Superior, Wis., including 300 miles across northern Minnesota.

Enbridge plans the Sandpiper to transport up to 375,000 barrels a day in part of the pipe. The $2.6 billion project was to start moving oil in two years.

Pipeline supporters say the project would provide a safe way to transport the volatile crude, safer than railcars.

Friends of the Headwaters, a citizen’s group with the goal of protecting natural resources in the Lake Itasca area, filed the lawsuit asking that the certificate of need be delayed. They say they fear oil spills and other environmental impacts.

“Wonderful news” is how the group responded to the court on its Facebook page. “We are hopeful that the decision’s ramifications are as consequential as we think they could be.”

The three-judge Appeals Court panel agreed with the friends organization, saying that state law requires a “rigorous and detailed” environmental review to come before any major official actions are taken on the project.

State law requires that to “ensure its use in the decision-making process, the environmental impact statement shall be prepared as early as practical in the formulation of an action,” the judges wrote

The U.S. Supreme Court has made similar decisions, the Appeals Court ruling said.

The PUC planned to conduct the environmental review as part of its study of exactly where the pipeline would be located.

Normally, the PUC considers the need for a project and the route of a pipeline at the same time. But for Sandpiper, commissioners opted to approve the need first, then take up the specific route.

Examining potential route alternatives were part of the certificate of need process.

After the June 5 pipeline approval, PUC officials said multiple hearings would be scheduled, including some in northern Minnesota, to get information about the pipeline’s impact. The environmental study also was to begin soon.

North Dakota officials have approved the pipeline’s construction in their state.

Sandpiper is a different project than the so-called Line 3, another Enbridge oil pipeline that would cross Minnesota. It is being contested in federal court.