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Lawmakers seek more health care changes

Sens. Matt Schmit of Red Wing (right) and Foung Hawj of St. Paul talk Thursday. Senators debated bills to fund education and health programs.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota already is on track to establish a new way for its residents to buy health insurance, and now legislators are poised to change how the state takes care of its elderly, disabled and poor.

On a 36-28 vote, Senators early Friday approved their plan to spend $11.2 billion in the next two years for health care, which is second only to public school funding in the $38 billion state budget.

The plan by Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, builds on the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. State leaders this year established a federally required online health insurance sales program, which in several ways is tied to the Lourey bill.

The vote split mostly along party lines, with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposed.

"We had a tough target, but we managed to be creative, while reforming within the health and human service area and generating revenue in our budget area," Lourey said. "We were able to mitigate cuts to those most vulnerable populations -- our elderly and those with disabilities. In fact, in the end we were able to make some very critical investments."

After more than 13 hours debating the two most costly spending bills (senators passed an education funding measure earlier), Lourey talked about what he saw as positives: "We were able to increase nursing home funding by about $20 million by using an equity principle known as rebasing. This is an option we have not had since the early '90s. It will lead to a greater equity between what the nursing homes get paid and what their actual costs are."

Lourey said he was disappointed when handed a spending target $150 million less than in the current budget. "It was much lower than I was hoping for."

However, he said, his committee was able to craft a bill that cuts no state-provided health care.

"We raised some revenue in innovative ways," he said, including gaining $80 million by adding a surcharge on HMO revenues.

The bill would increase rates for nursing homes and other long-term care programs by 2 percent in 2015.

The bill also would:

• Require new rates to be established so nursing homes are paid closer to their actual costs than what happens under current law.

• Increase funds available for dental services received by the poor.

• Pay child care providers involved in several programs 2 percent more in the next two years.

Senators turned down 37-27 Sen. Torrey Westrom's attempt to remove a provision that would require that day care providers only place babies on their backs to sleep.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.