(AP) The Minnesota Senate rushed out and got a last-minute gift for nursing homes before voting Thursday to make the state's health and welfare programs more generous.
The senators unanimously approved an extra $27 million to raise salaries and cover health insurance costs for long-term care workers, promising to pay it off with a tax bill yet to be debated. Nursing homes would get a 3.25 percent bump in state aid in each of the next two years.
Cash for nursing homes was the only part of the $11.5 billion health and human services package that the Senate could agree on. The full bill passed on a 42-23 vote, after clashes over abortion, immigration and the direction of health care reform.
"We have a wave of baby boomers coming. We need to do something," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, who offered the nursing home amendment.
The money would help - but it's not enough to reverse financial problems that threaten to shut down a third of the state's 395 nursing homes, said Rick Carter, who heads an industry group called Care Providers of Minnesota.
Carter said fast-rising employee health costs would eat up most of the cash.
"This is a good start," he said. "It is far from what we think is necessary to properly fund facilities and workers and the costs that have been increasing."
Beyond nursing homes, the Senate funding package aims to bring more than 50,000 uninsured Minnesotans into state health programs by 2011 through a public awareness campaign and by making it easier to qualify. It establishes a commission to plan for universal health coverage by 2010.
The bill also loosens welfare rules - removing a work rule that made it harder for recipients to go to college and financial penalties for living in public housing. It even offers a $3 million grant program to help those on welfare fix their cars.
Another provision would allow parents to keep children up to age 25 on their health insurance, even if they weren't going to college.
Republicans attacked the bill's vision of expanded government health care with amendments that would have removed tax advantages for health insurance and allowed for-profit health plans to sell insurance to Minnesotans. The moves failed.
"We have to move toward a free-market approach," said Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield.
Abortion rights supporters showed their strength for the first time since the Democrats padded their majority in last year's election, defeating an attempt to challenge a state Supreme Court ruling that affirmed abortion rights on a 38-26 vote.
But the body was more evenly divided over a grant program that encourages unexpectedly pregnant women to become mothers instead of having abortions. The bill cuts in half the funding for that program; amendments that would have restored the money fell just a vote or two short.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, criticized the Senate bill for "blowing the lid off of welfare reform."
But Gov. Tim Pawlenty praised the public outreach for health programs, since half of the state's 70,000 uninsured children already qualify but aren't signed up.
He said an incentive program that would give publicly insured patients gift cards to Target or other stores if they followed doctor's advice could be tweaked.
"We think it should be related to their health and health care rather than a general gift card," Pawlenty said.