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Pawlenty eager to veto health bill

ST. PAUL - The second-largest Minnesota state budget bill won final legislative approval Monday night - despite a looming gubernatorial veto - as Minnesota lawmakers sign off on roughly $11 billion in health care spending.

The bill, a compromise between the House and Senate's original measures, increases funding for health-related programs by $587 million over the two-year budget period and proposes a series of reforms aimed at lowering health care costs and making it easier to get coverage.

Under the proposal, 72,000 uninsured Minnesotans would receive health care coverage by 2011, including upward of 40,000 children, if future Legislatures agree to provide the needed funding.

The bill also would boost state aid to nursing homes across Minnesota, which lawmakers said have struggled to care for the elderly with existing funds.

"This bill goes a big way toward addressing that problem," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who helped lead the House-Senate conference committee on health-care spending.

Senators on Monday passed the compromise bill 47-19. The House passed it 82-44 hours later, mostly on a Democratic-Republican split.

Republicans tried unsuccessfully to send the health care finance package back to the conference committee to be changed, as they have done with other budget compromises this year.

GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he is eager to reject the entire spending bill, which spends $276 million more than he proposed.

"This health and human services bill is not even in the same fiscal galaxy as we are operating in," Pawlenty said Monday. "It is going to be vetoed as soon as I get it."

The governor said until there is an agreement on how much money can be spent in the whole state budget, he cannot sign major spending bills.

"It is so bad it wasn't even a close call," he added of the health care bill.

Democrats did not want to talk in detail about their plans after a Pawlenty veto.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," said Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis, a skilled negotiator on health care issues and conference committee co-chairwoman.

The package likely bound for Pawlenty's desk is a compromise between separate health care funding bills passed by the House and Senate. A key difference between the two chambers was the extent to which subsidized health care coverage was expanded.

Representatives pushed a more costly plan that would have provided coverage to nearly all uninsured Minnesota children within four years. The Senate version broadened coverage in the MinnesotaCare program for children, though not as far as the House proposed, and expanded coverage for some adults.

Uninsured Minnesotans drive up health care costs because they end up receiving costly treatment in emergency rooms, rather than seeking less costly preventative care, Berglin said.

"Oftentimes from there they go to a hospital bed they wouldn't have needed," she said.

Pawlenty also proposed spending new money on health care programs, Democrats said, but his plan included using dedicated health care funds in other areas. The governor has said the state can't afford the DFL-led Legislature's plan.

While the bill increases state general fund spending by $355 million, Berglin said it doesn't rely on tax increases.

Only public schools receive more state spending than health-care programs.

The health-care budget bill features a funding boost for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Those facilities would see annual state reimbursement increases of 3 percent. Also, the formula used to reimburse nursing homes would be changed, benefiting many rural facilities.

Sen. Tony Lourey, a freshman lawmaker who served on the health care conference committee, touted a provision that makes it easier for farmers to get state-supported health care coverage. Another measure would allow small businesses to access MinnesotaCare for their employees.

"These programs will do much to increase the number of insured in greater Minnesota," the Kerrick DFLer said.

Lawmakers conceded that reforms in the bill won't actually lower health care expenses.

"Overall costs will continue to go up and we'll have to address that," Berglin said.

Huntley said this year's bill sets the stage for broader health care reform.

"We need to, by next year, come back with a plan that changes the whole system," he said.