The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 23, 2013

Minn. Dems look to cut $150M from health programs


The Associated Press

ST. PAUL — Democrats in the Minnesota Legislature are proposing $150 million in cuts from health and human services programs, a move that alarms advocates for the poor and has prompted criticism from other Democrats.

Minnesota House and Senate Democrats are proposing $2 billion in new taxes to erase the budget deficit and spend more on schools, economic development and other state services. But health and human services programs, which comprise the second-largest portion of the state’s two-year budget, might get slashed over concerns that the spending in that area is rising too quickly.

“This is the part of the budget that keeps me up at night because it is the thing that if we don’t continue to do the reforms and find the efficiencies in the system, we won’t be able to provide the services that the people of Minnesota expect,” DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen said.

The proposed spending cut troubles lawmakers who are in charge of crafting budgets for health services and human services, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report. They have to set priorities for spending for nursing homes, hospitals, subsidized health insurance and welfare.

DFL Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, said he’s not pleased with the proposed cuts, especially on the heels of Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature cutting $1.2 billion from health and human services programs two years ago.

“I’m very upset. I came close to resigning as chair,” Huntley said. “If that’s what the Democrats are going to do, what’s the difference between that and what the Republicans have done over the last two years?”

About 90 percent of the health and human services budget supports programs for the disabled and the elderly, Huntley said. It would be difficult to cut $150 million without hurting those people, he added.

“We all go home in May and our lives go on, but there will be people that will be suffering because of what we will be doing with this budget,” Huntley said.

If the cuts are enacted, Huntley said he might have to consider reducing payments to hospitals, imposing surcharges on health care providers and finding other fees.

Rep. Jim Abeler, an Anoka Republican who chaired the House Health and Human Services Committee when the GOP was in charge, said he was shocked when he saw the budget target.

“They’re raising billions of dollars and putting it everywhere like to the courts and environment, and those are wonderful,” Abeler said. “But there’s only one part of government where people could die, and that’s in our area.”

Organizations lobbying on behalf of hospitals, nursing homes, the elderly and the disabled are scrambling to shift their strategy from calling for more money to protecting what they have.

Bruce Nelson is the CEO of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota, which advocates for community living for people with disabilities. He said he was hoping lawmakers would give nursing home and community-based home workers a cost-of-living increase. Now he worries they might face a pay cut.

“When they don’t see an increase in their paychecks for maybe now the fifth year in a row, they’re going to move on to other jobs,” Nelson said. “And that really does compromise the quality of care for our most vulnerable Minnesotans.”