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Health care town hall in Cottage Grove shines light on Medicaid recipients

Jamie and Kate Swenson shared their journey to receive Medicaid for their son Cooper at the July 18 town Hall. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Seven state senators and representatives, along with Dr. Lynn Blewett from the University of Minnesota, were on the panelat the health care town hall at Cottage Grove City Hall July 18. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
Rosie Moriarty spent years fighting for Medicaid services for loved ones. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 4
Dakota and Washington County commissioners Mike Slavik and Karla Bigham said they are concerned that if Medicaid is cut in federal programs, the cost may fall back to county services and taxpayers. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 4

A recent town hall meeting put a personal face on the future of Medicaid in Minnesota.

Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, gathered 12 state senators, representatives, county commissioners and city council members to discuss what effects on Minnesota's Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare programs could be if the federal government passes the Revised Better Care Reconciliation Act in place of the Affordable Care Act.

Schoen was joined July 18 in Cottage Grove by panelists Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, Rep. Tony Jurgens R-Cottage Grove, Rep. Joann Ward, DFL-Woodbury, Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL- South St. Paul, Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik, Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham and the University of Minnesota's Lynn Blewett.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, about 12 percent of Cottage Grove residents, 17 percent of Hastings residents and 10 percent of Woodbury residents are covered by Minnesota Medicaid programs. Over 31,000 Washington County residents receive benefits from MinnesotaCare or Medical Assistance.

Cottage Grove residents Kate and Jamie Swenson shared their journey to receive Medicaid funding for their 6-year-old autistic son, Cooper.

Because of the therapies, treatments and services the Swensons have been able to fund from Medical Assistance programs, Cooper is able to do many things he couldn't before: drink from a cup, engage with the family, gives hugs and speak using a talking device.

Without Medicaid, Kate Swenson said they would lose Cooper.

"Not physically, but cognitively, socially, behaviorally," she said. "He would regress without the support. I've seen it (when he previously had to leave therapy)."

"We would lose Cooper eventually, meaning he's getting bigger," she added. "He's 65 pounds, he's 6 years old ... and eventually he's going to be 20 and 30. And I don't know how I'm going to be able to physically care for him without these supports. So the stakes are pretty high."

Rosie Moriarty of Mendota Heights said she also fought for services in 1975, when her son Miguel, whom most people know as Nooners, was born with autism.

"I fought because I had to provide these services or I would fail as a mother," she said. "And I was not going to fail as a mother."

Moriarty also cared for friend Melanie Kett, a violist for the Minnesota Orchestra, after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and could no longer care for herself on her own.

"(Medicaid recipients) are people," she said. "They are loving, giving people. In our lives, and many other people's lives."

If the revised health care bill is passed at the federal level, it will be up to state and county officials to decide where their decreased funds will be directed.

"I can guarantee counties will have to raise revenue to cover some of the costs, and then are we going to be moving people to other programs like MinnesotaCare," Schoen said. "We have a lot of difficult choices, and those will not be free. Let's hope this doesn't happen so that we're not put in that position."

County commissioners Bigham and Slavic shared concerns that the federal Revised Better Care Reconciliation Act will leave it to counties to foot the health care bill.

"Counties are the safety net," Bigham said. "What's very concerning and troubling for counties is, if this federal program goes through and these cuts or reductions go through, the state is going to have limited funds. That's a direct drop to counties. And we only have one way to raise money, and that's levy increases, that's property taxes."

Dean, who chairs the House health and human services finance committee, said new federal regulations could hit people with disabilities the hardest.

"If there are any reductions, the people with disabilities get hurt more," he said. "And that shouldn't be the case."

Ward said she would aim to focus on preventative care.

"Budgets are storytellers," she said. "If you look at a budget, it can just a bunch of numbers, but it also reflects the values ... But if we spend a little more money for Visiting Nurses and some of the other programs Minnesota has invested in, those are the prevention and early intervention stories that we see in our budgets and hope to see in our budgets."

Many members of Congress have held health care town halls during congressional recesses.

Rep. Betty McCollum, whose 4th District includes most of Woodbury and Newport, has held a town hall regarding the federal legislation. Rep. Jason Lewis, who lives in Woodbury and represents the 2nd District, has not held a town hall on health care.

Last week's town hall in Cottage Grove was the first held by state legislators in the area.

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