House approves health bill after clashing over abortion, welfare

(AP) Floor fights over abortion, welfare, money and the government's role in health care couldn't stop a huge health spending bill from passing the Minnesota House early Saturday.

The $10 billion package - accounting for almost 30 cents of every state dollar - was approved 86-45. It aims to cover at least 50,000 uninsured children within four years and cut medical costs by linking payments to how successfully providers treat patients.

"If you do it right, you can improve people's health and spend less money doing it," said Rep. Tom Huntley, the Duluth Democrat who heads the House health finance panel.

But the threat of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto hung over the bill, which would spend about $300 million more than his plan. That's about in line with the Senate's health bill, but the House focuses more on children's coverage and cutting medical costs.

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Republicans attacked from many angles, repeatedly challenging the bill's price tag and the plan to cover more children in a debate that stretched past midnight for the third night this week.

"We're hurting the private system of health care coverage that we've got and moving those people onto the dole," said Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud.

The "Children's Health Security Act" would cover children even if their parents had access to employer coverage - something that's not currently done on subsidized health programs. Children with family incomes up to $46,500 would be eligible starting in late 2008, and the income limit would rise to about $62,000 by 2011.

The state would also pay the medical bills of uninsured children in qualifying income levels even if they never signed up for government health plans.

Opponents criticized the plan for not covering enough of the estimated 70,000 uninsured Minnesota children - and for leading toward a government-run health system.

"It's a single-payer universal health care big government move," said former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon. Unable to speak above a whisper because of laryngitis, Sviggum later pantomimed his opposition by picking up and pointing to a large figure of a pig.

Efforts to get tough on welfare drew bipartisan support, with amendments blocking out-of-state felons from getting welfare and barring welfare recipients from using their electronic benefit cards to buy alcohol or smokes.

Abortion rights supporters just barely passed their first test of strength since becoming a majority in the House. On a 68-64 vote, they defeated a move to ban public funding of abortion and challenge a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights.

"We'd be passing a law that flies in the face of what our Supreme Court has ruled our constitution says," said Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

Several attempts to raid funds for family planning services were also voted down.

The health spending bill was the last in a line of budget bills pushed through the House this week in drawn-out floor sessions. The approvals pave the way for negotiations with the Senate, but the lawmakers will also have to find compromise with Pawlenty and his veto pens.

Other noteworthy provisions in the 529-page health bill include:

-Children's health insurance would cost $99 million over the next two years, and nearly four times that in 2010-2011.

-Nursing homes would get 3 percent bumps in their reimbursements for each of the next two years, at a cost of $138 million over two years. Three-quarters of the money would have to go to employee wages and benefits.

-The bill overhauls state aid to those with disabilities and puts more money into mental health services.

-More generous welfare provisions would loosen work requirements for students, stop counting Social Security income and housing subsidies against the state welfare grant, and allow welfare recipients to refuse unpaid jobs. Moves to strip out the welfare changes failed.

-Pawlenty's proposed health insurance exchange would get $6 million to help consumers buy tax-free individual policies.

-Family planning services would get $1.1 million, or a 25 percent bump in funding. There's also $6 million for pandemic flu preparations, $10 million for dental care for those on public health programs and $27 million in grants for an electronic medical record system.