In the midst of a contentious debate over how to fix the state's $5.8 billion budget deficit, Minnesota's candidates for governor appear to agree on one piece of the budget.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer, Democratic nominee Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner all say it's a good idea to preserve a little-known program that helps keep older people who are poor and disabled out of expensive nursing homes.
The Elderly Wavier program is a growing part of the state budget that helps pay for their care. That's a big concern for many Minnesotans, as nursing homes are expensive. Monthly rates can easily exceed $7,000.
Federal and state taxpayers pay nursing home costs for old people who are poor. Yet nearly all surveys show older people, including those with health problems, would prefer to stay at home, and of course, it's much cheaper.
The Elderly Waiver program, created 30 years ago after a federal rule change allowed Minnesota and other states to do so, allows old people in poor health who have run out of money to stay at home, or in some cases at an assisted-living apartment. They receive care there instead of going to a nursing home.
It helps people like Jackie Mavis, 84, who lives in a tidy but small efficiency in Lakeview Commons, an assisted-living community in Maplewood.
Mavis, who arrived at Lakeview Commons several years ago, never expected to live there.
"I had back surgery and I got what they call a club foot from that, and that's the reason I came here," she said. "I did say I'd come for two or three months, but I guess six years is a little longer, isn't it?"
After working 42 years for an insurance company, Mavis had some savings, a pension, a bit of insurance coverage and Social Security. But that wasn't enough to afford the $3,000 to $4,000 a month cost of living at Lakeview Commons.
"I was on my own for awhile here, but the money goes fast," she said.
When nearly all of Mavis' money was gone, she qualified for the Elderly Waiver. Now she pays just over $800 a month. Taxpayers pick up the rest, which is on average, about $1,300 a month for Minnesotans getting the help.
The alternative is a nursing home that costs as much as five times that amount.
The cost savings are one reason the candidates for governor agree Elderly Waiver is worth keeping -- even in the face of a projected $5.8 billion state budget deficit.
During a recent debate in Brainerd, the candidates were asked whether Elderly Waiver should be saved.
Dayton praised the program.
"Many elderly who'd like to stay in their homes should be supported in doing so," Dayton said. "That benefits them, it benefits the larger community."
Emmer has said the state's health and human services spending should focus on children and the elderly. He has called for cutting some government programs to balance the budget, but not Elderly Waiver.
"That should be one of our priorities," Emmer said. "But again, you got to go back to this argument that somehow, government should be allowed to expand, no matter what our economic situation is. It isn't the right approach."
Horner also supports the Elderly Waiver program. But he said government needs to get better value for the money it spends.
"It is exactly the kind of investment we ought to be making for the future," Horner said.
Given the consensus among the candidates, the program likely will survive regardless of who is elected governor.
Spending on Elderly Waiver takes a relatively small portion of Minnesota's overall state budget. This year, it will cost about $303 million for nearly 21,000 recipients, according to Minnesota Department of Human Service projections. Of that, 60 percent will be paid with federal dollars and 40 percent by the state.
Next year, Minnesota's contribution rises, as it will have to pick up half of the costs.
In recent years, the state has tightened requirements and reduced Elderly Waiver payments to care providers. Because of those changes, some care providers are turning away folks who qualified for the program.
That's happened as Minnesota's elderly have become one of the fastest-growing components of the state population.