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Minnesota bill would expand child health care

ST. PAUL - Minnesota representatives took a step toward guaranteeing all Minnesota children have health insurance by 2011 late Friday as they neared passage of a massive health program funding measure.

ST. PAUL - Minnesota representatives took a step toward guaranteeing all Minnesota children have health insurance by 2011 late Friday as they neared passage of a massive health program funding measure.

The House health and human services funding bill, expected to pass early today, also would increase state payments to nursing homes and restore many health care cuts made since 2003 when the state faced a massive budget deficit.

Besides funding issues, representatives narrowly turned back turned back an attempt to forbid the state from funding most abortions.

The lengthy debate, which many predicted would top 12 hours, was over a 529-page bill, the longest funding measure lawmakers will face, and the second most expensive. It would spend $10 billion in state taxes during the two-year budget beginning July 1.

Health and human services program spending under the bill would rise 24.4 percent during the next two years, about the same as a Senate plan. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal would increase spending 20 percent.

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Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders emphasized that their bill included many provisions similar to those Pawlenty proposed.

While the House bill emphasizes more health insurance coverage for children, the Senate-passed bill paints with a broader stroke in an attempt to increase health coverage for all ages.

But neither the House nor the Senate bill does much for more than a year. For many programs, increases are not planned until 2009 or the next two-year budget - and lawmakers would have to approve that spending when they meet in two years.

Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said all children would have health insurance by 2011 under the House bill, if future Legislatures continue to spend money the way this bill suggests.

About 17,000 more children would be covered in the next two years by boosting spending $99 million, Thissen said.

"This bill sets up a road map of how we get to comprehensive coverage for all Minnesotans," said House Speaker MargaretAnderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.

Rural areas, especially, would benefit from increases in nursing home spending, said health finance Chairman Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth.

Besides increasing payments to all nursing homes 3 percent each of the next two years, the bill would spend money to study how to more fairly fund rural nursing homes.

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"We will basically move all nursing homes in the state to the Twin Cities' level," Huntley said.

Rural nursing home leaders complain that they receive less money than those in the Twin Cities.

Huntley's bill would add $138 million to nursing home funding.

"This is a start to get them back where they should be," Huntley said.

"More is done in this bill than has been done in years for the nursing homes. . ." said Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said. "It is a welcome rain after a very long drought."

A third of the state's nursing homes - mostly in rural Minnesota - are in danger of closing, Eken added.

As always with health-related bills, abortion was a hot-button topic.

Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, failed on a 68-64 vote to amend the measure to ban state-funded abortions, other than to save the life of a mother or in cases of rape.

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"How do we spend money entrusted to us by the citizens? Should it be on abortions?" said Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague. "I say no, absolutely no."

Most Republicans backed Otremba, joined by many rural Democrats.

Huntley's bill puts more money into family planning.

"If you want to prevent abortions, the best way to do that is to fund more family planning," Huntley said.

The bill also calls for stricter monitoring of about 90 chemicals, including a controversial herbicide. Opponents of the herbicide, atrazine, claim it produces troubling ecological effects, while supporters say atrazine levels used in farming aren't a threat and are a boon to the agriculture industry.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said opposition to atrazine-only related legislation lifted after other chemicals were tagged with meeting standards, so atrazine "wasn't singled out."

The bill also:

-- Spends $1 million so about 2,200 self-employed farmers could pay lower MinnesotaCare insurance program premiums and more could be added to the state-subsidized plan.

-- Allows people on Medical Assistance and other programs that provide free health care for the poor to earn more money and still qualify.

-- Establishes a pilot project to see the effectiveness of a fragrance-free school for students who are harmed by fragrances.

-- Requires the state to enact rules to make window screens sturdy enough to prevent children from falling through them.

-- Gives people who provide in-home services for the elderly and disabled 3 percent pay increases in each the next two years.

-- Provides more money to welfare programs.

-- Requires measurements of nuclear-related emissions to be taken at the state's two nuclear-powered electric plants.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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