Cuts to health and human services would be devastating, lawmakers told

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Preventing lead poisoning in children. Helping people with disabilities stay in the workforce. Providing health coverage for thousands of Minnesotans. Protecting the public health.

The list of essential public services that would be cut under Governor Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget includes these and many more, a cascade of speakers told state lawmakers Thursday at a state Senate hearing.

The Health and Human Services Budget Division heard public testimony on the Pawlenty budget recommendations and expects to schedule several more sessions due to the huge response, said Senator Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the committee.

Speakers ranged from mothers of children with severe disabilities to the president-elect of the Minnesota Medical Association and even former Republican Governor Arne Carlson.

Carlson appeared on behalf of a program long advocated by his wife, Susan, to help children suffering from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. He criticized Pawlenty – also a Republican – for being shortsighted.

“Whenever there’s a budget crisis, it’s the prevention side that gets cut,” Carlson said. He called on lawmakers to “take a sensible approach” to developing a long-term budget.

“This nonsense of Band-Aids and Band-Aids and prayer does not work,” he said.

According to the latest financial projections, the state faces a $935 million deficit during the current biennium. Pawlenty proposes to address the shortfall by making $341 million in spending cuts – including $187 million in health and human services – and using $250 million in budget reserves and $250 million from the Health Care Access Fund.

While health and human service programs account for about 40 percent of state spending, cuts to programs and the raid on the Health Care Access Fund account for 56 percent of Pawlenty’s budget fix, speakers testified.

Dr. George Schoephoerster, president of the Minnesota Medical Association, said physicians strongly object to transferring money from the Health Care Access Fund to the general fund for other purposes. The fund, created through a tax on health care providers, was intended to provide access to affordable health care for uninsured Minnesotans.

Thousands of people will not get health care coverage if the governor’s plan goes through, he said.

Dr. Mary Braddock, a pediatrician and representative of the Minnesota Hospital Association, also decried the depletion of the Health Care Access Fund, which has had money taken from it every year since 2005.

“If these funds had not been diverted to other purposes, Minnesota would be well on its way to universal health care for vulnerable populations,” she said.

Other speakers testified that human service programs are the wrong areas to cut when the state is going into a recession.

“For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, you can anticipate a 7 percent increase in public assistance caseloads,” said Deborah Schlick, executive director of the Affirmative Options Coalition.

Instead of cutting money for the safety net, “these are the funds we ought to deploy during a poor labor market, not deplete,” she said.

In addition to the huge cuts to health care, the governor’s proposal would slash funds for child care assistance, employment programs for people with disabilities, assistance to families with severely disabled children and numerous public health activities from tracking disease to reducing lead consumption in children.

In several cases, the cuts would jeopardize matching monies from the federal government, further worsening the problems for working people, several people testified.

“The ‘no new taxes’ approach isn’t working well,” said Mark McAfee, legislative representative for AFSCME Council 5, the union representing thousands of public service workers across the state.

The only solution is to raise the revenue needed to maintain vital services, he said. “We’re among those who are not reluctant to advocate for a closure of tax loopholes and the use of a progressive income tax,” McAfee said.

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