Elder care worker raises pass House

Published 9:54 am Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House passed a health and social programs budget late Monday with a small salary increase for nursing home and long-term care workers, but some lawmakers questioned whether they were enough for struggling homes in rural areas.

The Democratic-sponsored, $7 billion health and human services bill passed on a mostly party-line vote of 70-64. It includes a 3 percent pay hike for nursing home workers and 2 percent for long-term care workers. The bill’s sponsors said it would also give about 600,000 additional Minnesotans access to some form of health insurance in the next two years, although some of those costs would be covered by federal and not state funds. The bill also steers new money to expanding access to mental health treatment for students.

The bill includes several new ways for the state to raise money for health programs. It would increase a state surcharge on hospital budgets from 1.56 percent to 2.63 percent, a move that’s likely to be felt mostly at Mayo Clinic and suburban hospitals that serve fewer medical assistance patients. The measure also would collect about $50 million by making HMOs return excess operating reserves fed by government insurance programs.

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Few bills at the Capitol are more complex than those that fund human services programs, forcing lawmakers to tackle questions of eligibility and juggle state and federal funding streams. As Monday’s debate got rolling, House members spent more than three hours on a single amendment that made changes to the surcharge on hospitals.

The long debate also steered into abortion politics, when minority Republicans joined by a handful of Democrats attached a provision requiring clinics that perform more than 10 abortions a year to pay a $3,700 annual license fee and undergo inspections twice a year.

However, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed identical legislation last year. The abortion provision also faces a tougher audience in the Senate, where there are fewer Democrats opposed to legal abortion.

Lawmakers also steered into unusual territory when a Republican member moved to require drug and alcohol screenings for state welfare recipients. A Democrat countered by proposing those drug tests be extended to Minnesota lawmakers in order that they be eligible for their pay and benefits. The ensuing debate led to a few comical moments.

“Bring on the cup,” Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, said of potential urine testing. “I have nothing to fear.”

House members voted to add the drug tests for welfare recipients and lawmakers to the larger bill, though some suggested such requirements would have a tough time surviving a court challenge.

In all, the House health budget spends about $170 million less on health programs than Dayton proposed.