Week in Review - March 2015 #3

by Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A.
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Friday marked the first committee deadline and thus a flurry of activity at the Capitol to act favorably on bills in their respective policy committees.

MNsure

When Governor Mark Dayton’s supplemental budget is released on March 24, it will include $500,000 for a special health care finance task force to evaluate the future of the state’s new health insurance website. The task force will consider options including MNsure’s long-term financial viability, moving to a federal exchange, and changes to other public health care programs.

Legislators are debating bills that would change how MNsure is governed, including one that would move the state to the federal exchange.

Gov. Dayton said he supports the recommendations from the Office of the Legislative Auditor that would make the agency accountable directly to his office.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) said more time and money won’t fix MNsure’s problems. He said he wants the existing MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee to start meeting to address problems with the exchange. The panel has not met since last November.

MNCare

Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood) who chairs the House Health Care Finance Committee, authored a bill to move the 95,000 people currently participating in MinnesotaCare coverage to MNsure, where they would buy a private plan. Rep. Dean estimates the shift would save about $900 million over two years, cash that could be used for Republican priorities that include nursing home funding, and mental and dental health programs.

When MinnesotaCare was created more than two decades ago, state lawmakers aimed to make sure people who made too much money to tap Medicaid, but didn’t make enough to buy their own insurance, had access to health care coverage.

Rep. Dean thinks private plans will offer consumers more choice, but in the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee hearing on the bills this week, Democratic members criticized the bill saying it punishes low income consumers. Rep. Jennifer Schultz (DFL-Duluth) argued that plan choice is still limited in the private market, because of the limited number of providers. She said real choice would mean giving people access to more health care providers not to more plan choice.

Ms. Doyle with TakeAction Minnesota, a non-profit group that supports public health care programs, said Rep. Dean’s plan would be bad for MinnesotaCare participants. It would land them in more expensive and potentially less comprehensive coverage, she said. She said the bill would hit Greater Minnesota the hardest because that’s where enrollment is the highest.

UCare, one of the state’s leading health insurance companies, also opposes Dean’s proposal. UCare, which covers about 30 percent of MinnesotaCare’s participants, said the company’s analysis of the bill points to higher costs for MinnesotaCare participants.

Rep. Dean has another bill that would abolish MNsure and move Minnesota to the federal exchange in 2017.  That bill was passed out of committee along party lines.

His bills face challenges in the DFL-controlled Senate, where legislators say they’re hesitant to dismantle MinnesotaCare or MNsure.

Railroads

Gov. Dayton says railroads need to pay a proportionate share of the cost of safety improvements along the tracks used by oil trains. He held a news conference with local government officials and state lawmakers to highlight his proposal to impose new fees and property tax increases on the railroads to help pay for those projects.

He also released a list of 75 grade crossing improvements recommended by MNDOT. The Governor said grade separation projects in Coon Rapids, Moorhead, Prairie Island and Willmar are particularly urgent. He said he’ll include $76 million for those projects in his bonding bill proposal later this month.

Another bonding bill proposal would provide $3.1 million for a new training facility at Camp Ripley to prepare emergency personnel to respond to oil train derailments. The training was mandated in state law last year.

House Transportation Committee Chair Tim Kelly (R-Red Wing) said in a written statement that he appreciated the Governor bringing the issue forward and has indicated that railroad crossing upgrades will be addressed in his upcoming transportation funding proposal.

Officials with the Minnesota Regional Railroad Association have said the proposed tax increases would hurt consumers and businesses that ship by rail. They also contend the tax would violate federal law.

Transportation

Gov. Dayton and Senate Democrats say Minnesota needs to raise taxes to pay for $10 billion worth of road, bridge and transit projects over the next 10 years.

House Republicans have been working on a plan that doesn’t raise taxes, but would dedicate the revenue from several existing taxes to fix road and bridges. Chair Kelly isn’t ready to say how much it will cost. Even though his plan would spend less than Gov. Dayton and Senate Democrats, he said the Republican proposal is more popular, according to recent polls from KSTP-TV and Survey USA.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he doesn’t support dedicating tax revenue that now goes to the general fund to transportation. Sen. Bakk said using general fund revenue for transportation projects is a bad idea because lawmakers will always put a higher priority on education and health care than on roads and bridges. Senate Democrats favor a gas tax hike of at least 16 cents a gallon and a Twin Cities-wide sales tax increase for transit.

One House Democrat, Rep. Ron Erhardt (DFL-Edina) is proposing a compromise that relies on Rep. Kelly’s proposal to dedicate some existing taxes and a gas tax and sales tax hike that doesn’t raise as much as Gov. Dayton’s plan.

Sunday Sales

In an effort to bring publicity to their issue, about 40 cars adorned with flags calling for alcohol to be sold in Minnesota on Sundays went to Hudson, Wisconsin to buy alcohol last Sunday.

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Jim Metzen (DFL-South St. Paul) says he isn’t sure he’ll hold a hearing on a bill that would allow the state’s liquor stores to open on Sundays. House Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Joe Hoppe (R-Chaska) said he’s going to meet with Rep.Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) to discuss how they should proceed with her bill, including possibly holding an informational hearing that doesn’t include a vote.

Rep. Hoppe said he won’t include Sunday sales in a broader omnibus liquor bill, but expects supporters of Sunday sales to propose it as an amendment when his liquor bill is debated on the House floor. He has voted against allowing Sunday sales in the past, but said he’s trying to remain neutral on the issue this year.

The House has repeatedly defeated efforts to expand liquor sales to Sunday. Independent and municipal liquor stores oppose the measure because they don’t want to open their stores on Sundays.

The Teamsters Union also opposes it because they worry it could reopen their labor contracts with liquor distributors.

Supporters of Sunday sales were hopeful that they could pass the measure this year after Republican House Speaker Daudt said he supported it. Gov. Dayton said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk. DFL Senate Majority Leader Bakk, however, said he does not support the initiative.

Poison Control Center

The Poison Control Center is part of the Minnesota Poison Control System, which evolved from a few hospital-based poison centers in the 1970s and ’80s to one emergency call center located at Hennepin County Medical Center. The Poison Center’s toxicology specialists take an average of 132 calls a day, handling everything from household poisonings to drug overdoses.

The Legislature mandated the creation of a single, integrated poison-control system, but it never fully funded the program. Now, the Poison Center says it needs more state support or it will scale back its 24-hour emergency call center.

The Poison Center received more than 48,000 calls last year. Sixty percent involved drug overdoses. Health care providers make almost a quarter of the calls to the Poison Center.

The Center’s funding problems started a few years ago when its federal grants were cut by more than 30 percent. Now, Hennepin County Medical Center says its contributions to the Poison Center will end on July 1. HCMC says it can no longer afford to be the only hospital that helps subsidize the statewide program.

Minnesota currently provides half the money needed to run the Poison Center. The center has a $800,000 request to restore the program’s budget for FY 2016-2017.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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