‘We have to make choices': Minnesota Senate approves health care cuts

The Minnesota Senate approved a plan to make deep cuts to health programs Tuesday as Gov. Tim Walz warned the GOP proposal would “decimate” health care for up to 1 million people.

The 36-28 vote happened just before 2 a.m. and fell mostly along party lines. Republicans said their proposal was necessary because of Minnesota’s ballooning spending on health and human services. Health services for adults need to be cut and aligned with federal standards, they said.

During a combative news conference earlier in the day, they declined to say how Minnesotans would be affected by the cuts until asked about a specific program. And senators did not say how they would pay for their proposals in future years without continuing Minnesota’s tax on medical providers, which is scheduled to end this year.

“We have to make choices,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. “We are looking hard into the future at limited revenue, at promises that need to be kept for people who have no other places to go.”

The Senate proposal would cut basic services, such as dental care, for adults on the state-run MinnesotaCare insurance program. Advocates for lower-income people said the list of cuts includes vision care, dialysis, and trips to the doctor.

Minnesota is one of two states – the other being New York – that provides a higher level of benefits than the federal standard under the national health law known as the Affordable Care Act, Benson said.

But Democrats said the Senate GOP proposal, if it takes effect, would increase the state’s costs over time.

“You can’t just cut out the dental care and say, ‘Oh look what we’ve saved.’ Because people get sicker when you don’t give them basic care,” said state Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester.

Walz, whose human services commissioner warned last week about potential cuts under the GOP proposal, was blunt when asked by FOX 9 about it Tuesday.

“It will decimate programs,” Walz said. “It will leave about 1 million people without health care insurance. It will take about 41 percent of our children and put them at risk. All of those things are real, and we will have a discussion about that.”

Walz and House Democrats have proposed spending significantly more on health and human services programs than Senate Republicans over the next two years, though the GOP has said its budget will still be $1.6 billion above the current level of spending. Leaders from the two chambers face a Monday deadline to agree on how much to spend, a number that will guide negotiations.

Walz and House Democrats have proposed creating a public option, known as OneCare, to buy into the MinnesotaCare program. 

Benson said the DFL plans were unsustainable in future years.

“[Walz] is raising taxes in an unprecedented way. He is punishing lower- and middle-income Minnesotans, and he still has a structural deficit because he made so many promises he hasn’t acknowledged he can’t keep,” Benson said.

When a reporter asked about Senate Republicans having no way to pay for health care programs without a continuation of the medical provider tax, Benson responded, “and neither does the governor.”