Ruling preserves funding for health care, welfare

Judge Kathleen Gearin
Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin ended weeks of uncertainty for those who rely on state services for basic needs, and issued a ruling that preserves funding for health care and welfare programs during a government shutdown. Gearin listens to arguments on the state shutdown during a legal hearing in this file photo taken Thursday, June 23, 2011, at the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Gehrz, Pool

Advocates for the poor expressed relief at a judge's ruling Wednesday that would preserve funding for health care and welfare programs during a government shutdown.

The decision by Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin ended weeks of uncertainty for those who rely on state services for basic needs. The judge determined which essential state functions would continue during a shutdown. Without an agreement from legislators on the budget, all other state functions will cease at the end of Thursday.

Advocates said Gearin's ruling averted what could have been a disastrous situation. Some had worried that sick Minnesotans would go without medicine, hospitals would turn patients away, and welfare recipients would lose their monthly benefits. All of these scenarios have been ruled out by the judge's ruling.

Medical Assistance and Minnesota Care will continue. Group housing, food assistance, and other welfare programs will be funded. Child support payments will be processed, and seniors will continue receiving home-delivered meals.

However, some nonprofit social service agencies that rely on state grants for housing, chemical and mental health services will need to scale back programming or lay off employees. The judge's ruling did not preserve funding for emergency shelter grants or supportive services to help formerly homeless people stay connected to providers. The ruling also left out funding for childcare assistance for low-income families.

Jeff and Nancy Beyer of Coon Rapids were relieved to learn that in-home health care assistance would continue after June 30. Their 17-year-old son, Martin, who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, has been in a residential treatment group home for three years. He's finally coming home Friday.

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Jeff Beyer said the group home was unable to extend his stay in response to the potential shutdown. Another resident will move into his room Friday.

"So the bigger concern for us was, OK, Martin's coming home, and that's great, but we were planning on using quite a bit of staff ... to help us manage that," he said.

Despite the judge's ruling, Beyer is anxious about the shutdown. "Maybe this is all going to work out okay," he said, "but we're still holding our breath a little bit for a couple more days."

Social service providers said they prepared for a much worse scenario. Staff at Simpson Housing Services had just finished stuffing envelopes with notices for landlords when they learned of the judge's ruling. The letters told landlords the agency would not be able to provide rental subsidies for low-income families next month. The judge's ruling preserved the program's funding.

"We've pulled the letters, and I'm really glad," said executive director Julie Manworren.

Manworren said weeks of planning has taken a toll on the agency's regular work. "Part of the huge problem of this is the inordinate amount of time and energy that everyone is having to spend in scenario planning, in cash flow projecting, and going to meetings to hear what the latest update is, which changes day to day, hour to hour," she said.

Patrick Thibault, a registered nurse at a residential mental illness center in Willmar, said any change in services could alarm patients and end up costing state government more.

"Any time you disrupt the quality of your services, then the risk factors are things like, obviously, people go back to a hospital setting or they have a crisis," he said.

Thibault isn't sure if his center will stay open during a shutdown. That's because it is one of many nonprofits that gets its state funding doled out through a county, and some counties are dealing with matters directly.

The St. Louis County Board decided Tuesday to fund services like mental health care and child and adult protective services. County officials hope they'll be reimbursed by the state after a shutdown, but they said they're willing to risk losing money.

"Particularly of concern are what we are classifying life and safety issues," said Ann Busche, the county's director of public health and human services. "And they were not necessarily deemed critical by the state but we feel in our community they still need to be provided."

In Ramsey and Hennepin counties, the plans are less clear cut. On Tuesday, the Ramsey County Board authorized the county manager to pay for services already included in the 2011 budget in the event of a shutdown.

The Hennepin County Board meets Thursday morning to discuss how they'll be impacted by a shutdown. The county has already agreed to continue funding services like the Family Homeless Prevention Assistance program for one month.

Cathy ten Broeke, the coordinator of the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, said the program is being used in part to help north Minneapolis residents displaced by the May 22 tornado. She said service providers have been overwhelmed by the tornado response and the threat of a shutdown.

"We're trying to respond to all of this with our existing system, and now our existing system is shutting down, so we're just utterly in crisis mode," ten Broeke said.

She said many homeless shelters have cash reserves to remain open for one month.