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Governor's health plan would add poor, disabled, elderly

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ST. PAUL — Thousands more poor, disabled and elderly Minnesotans would receive state-funded health care if Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget plan passes.

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Also, programs designed to help children would receive a new emphasis. The plan to spend $12 billion on human services programs over two years would add 145,000 to health care rolls, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson told a Senate committee Wednesday.

“This is a substantial increase,” she said.

The state served 862,000 in fully state-funded and state-subsidized health programs last year. Nearly half of those enrolled were children.

Health care programs administered by the state Human Services Department dominate a two-year budget proposal Dayton unveiled Tuesday. The total state-funded budget would spend nearly $38 billion.

The health portion of spending would increase about $1 billion and, because care costs have soared, it is the fastest-growing part of the state budget.

New federal health care legislation is forcing the state to change some of its programs, and Jesson said it also will encourage more Minnesotans to sign up for state services.

Sixty percent of those 145,000 new patients the state expects to serve are eligible under current guidelines, she said, but for a variety of reasons they have not enrolled. New guidelines also will expand eligibility, and a provision of the federal law requiring Americans to carry health insurance will influence others to sign up.

Among those who will benefit, Sen. Tony Lourey said, are children.

“The focus on kids really jumps out at you,” said Lourey, a Kerrick Democrat who leads the Senate Health and Human Services Finance Division. “It’s a powerful approach.”

Jesson said savings the department is finding by cutting in some areas are being plowed into children-related programs.

One program that helps youths, she said, provides child care for kids whose mothers need to finish high school or must work. That would get a budget bump for the next two years.

Another program would help foster children older than 6 find permanent homes. Jesson said 355 youths are waiting for placement.

On the older side of life, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she is concerned about long-term care issues.

“If we are going to spend some money on those issues, which I hope we do, I think we can do a little better job,” Rosen said.

Lourey was happy with his initial impression of Dayton’s long-term care provisions. Among other factors, the proposal provides more money to keep the elderly in their own homes instead of forcing them into nursing homes.

“That renewed commitment to our long term care industry is something that we applaud,” Lourey said.

Among mental health changes Jesson emphasized was adding money to mobile mental health crisis units. She said that would especially help in rural areas by reducing the need for patients to go to expensive emergency rooms.

The Dayton budget did not include provisions to allow sex offenders to be released from state hospitals. Instead, it provided for increased funding to cover more offenders.

However, Lourey said he expects lawmakers to approve a provision to allow offenders to leave security hospitals. If not, he warned, federal judges may order their release.

Among the governor’s human services provisions:

- Set aside $300 million to implement Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act. The federal government is expected to pay most costs, but money is set aside in case it does not. Among other things, the state would streamline the enrollment process.

- Children’s programs would add $48 million to the budget, including $20 million for children with high needs.

- Mental health programs would get $9 million more but also produce $3 million in savings. In some cases, providers would get more money.

- Helping patients return to the community from state mental health treatment centers would receive $8 million in new money and $6 million moved from other programs.

- An estimated $19 million would be saved as the state renegotiates some health care contracts.

- Nursing homes and home-based care programs would get $7 million in new funds and $19 million from other programs.

- The state would spend $44 million more on programs such as modernizing the department’s technology.

- A variety of spending reductions would save $54 million.

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