- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 23

Gov. Dayton’s plan would most quickly address health premium hikes

One of the enduring lessons from the Affordable Care Act’s rocky rollout is this: Health care reforms that seem simple in concept are often more difficult than expected to enact in the real world. Minnesota’s experience with MNsure is a case study. A website that allows consumers to comparison-shop insurance and check if they qualify for financial aid? Sounds easy in this tech-savvy age. But it’s taken several years for MNsure to work through its bugs and start living up to its promise.

Knowing that even good ideas can be challenging to implement is valuable as tensions escalate between Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders over short-term financial aid for consumers hit with massive premium increases. Given that bills for 2017 coverage kicking in Jan. 1 will start arriving in early December, any new plan must be one that can be executed with the least risk of delays or technological snags.

The consumers hit by the premium increases are the 5 percent of Minnesotans who buy coverage on the individual market, meaning they don’t get it from employers or public programs such as Medicare. While many will qualify for federal aid to substantially discount premiums, some will not because their income is too high. Those are the consumers who need assistance from lawmakers.

Developments this week in negotiations over a special legislative session to approve aid have made it clear that Dayton’s plan, which would provide rebates of up 25 percent of monthly premiums in 2017, would be the most straightforward to implement. The governor’s proposed yearlong program, which would be funded by $300 million from the state surplus, is easy to understand. The stable sum it would provide over the entire year would also give the most certainty to consumers who are deciding right now what level of health insurance they can afford for the coming year.

The plan would also likely present the fewest headaches for state staff and insurance companies to administer. That’s a major plus because those organizations would ultimately get the money to those who need it.

State Republican legislative leaders merit praise for putting forth a detailed alternative to Dayton’s plan. What they’ve proposed goes beyond campaign-trail rhetoric. It also acknowledges a critical reality: State aid has a role to play this coming year to ensure health care access.

The GOP plan calls for a premium “cut” of 20 percent for the month of January. Then, what’s dubbed “targeted assistance” would kick in for the rest of the year, with aid targeted to those with lower incomes. Details such as how much Republicans would spend on the program or how the aid would be delivered to consumers were not available this week. However, the GOP raises a fair point about giving less assistance to those with higher incomes. In addition, its proposals to broaden provider networks and allowing the state aid dollars to be used for other health costs are worthwhile.

The challenge is whether these additional details, such as adding income verification to insurers’ responsibilities and designing a different state aid delivery system, could be executed in a tight time frame for 2017 relief. The answer likely is no, but GOP leadership has identified important improvements to consider during the regular legislative session for 2018 and beyond.

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St. Cloud Times, Nov. 25

Appreciate transparency of Wetterling files

The Stearns County Sheriff Office and County Attorney’s staffers are tackling the daunting task of digitizing and redacting more than 37,000-40,000 pages of investigative reports on the Jacob Wetterling case. There are more than 80,000 tips that have to be sorted along with audio and video tapes, stacks of photographs, and physical evidence.

Not only is the task a huge, it is necessary.

The importance of this effort - undertaken in what is being called the Wetterling Room in the basement of the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center - can’t be overlooked. It may give the public a look at how the 27-year investigation was conducted. Lessons can be learned on what was overlooked or misunderstood by investigators that allowed Danny Heinrich to escape detection for so many years in the murder of Jacob Wetterling.

But there are a few things to keep in mind when the mountain of data, much of it with information redacted to protect privacy, finally begins to flow sometime after the first of the year.

Remember context.

People have to show restraint when the information is released. People may be angry, confused or saddened by information on possible leads contained in the reports. People may have passed along tips with the best of intentions. But after the information is released, there may be hard feelings.

People will have to examine the data with open minds, knowing hindsight is always 20-20. Probably the biggest area of interest will be when Heinrich’s name first appears in the investigation. Heinrich admitted in court on Sept. 6 that he killed Wetterling. Heinrich made the admission as part of an agreement to get him to plead guilty to a federal child pornography charge. He won’t be charged in Wetterling’s murder.

The documents may provide answers on who has to be held accountable for the conduct of the investigation. It also may show that there were heroes in the 27-year effort to find Jacob and bring him home.

Investigators and other law enforcement experts may find information from the documents that may help them improve techniques and best practices to help solve child abduction cases.

We hope opportunities learn from this experience won’t be missed.

Transparency

Citizens need to recognize that when an investigation is closed all files related to the case become public information. This is an important part of transparency of government agencies, including law enforcement. Citizens pay for these investigations with their tax dollars. They need to hold public agencies accountable.

While certain information (names, Social Security numbers, confidential informants) may be blacked out, the required release of the information helps the process. Accuracy, though, is paramount. In fact, authorities have been going over the information twice to make sure nothing is missed that should be redacted. They may do it a third time.

The information is expected to be available online for the public.

Thanks for the efforts of the law enforcement and county attorney staffers who have spent lots of time on this project. We know they have taken great care to protect the privacy of people as these files go public. Most of all, thanks to everyone who helped bring this case to a conclusion and to the Wetterling family. Their courage has been an example to everyone dealing with tragedy.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Nov. 26

Counselors: Bolster school funding for support staff

There’s good news and bad news on the school counselor issue in Minnesota. The good news is that $12 million was just allocated to 77 schools in Minnesota to add school counselors or other social work support staff. The bad news: Minnesota still remains near the bottom for its counselor to student ratio.

The $12 million was approved by a bipartisan Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton to help solve the problem of low counselor ratios. The 77 schools will use the funding over six years to hire 114 support professionals. Schools in Madelia, Mankato, Waseca and Le Sueur County received funds.

But Minnesota currently has one counselor for every 743 students, according to the American School Counselor Association. That is triple the recommended ratio and second worst in the country. Minnesota can and should do better.

Spending on student support services is Minnesota about 2.6 percent of school budgets compared to a national average of 5.5 percent.

The $12 million allocation was set up as a matching grant program. Schools applied for the money and the state matched school dollars one-for-one in the first four years, and one-third to one in the last two years.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, had proposed $75 million in funding for the program during the legislative session this year. But Republicans did not go along with that and the compromise plan eventually set up the $12 million competitive grant program.

Experts like Minnesota State University education professor Walter Roberts note the importance of school counselors in making sure students are not only mentally prepared to learn but feel secure emotionally and have counseling available to them with family situations.

And Minnesota still lags behind what it invested in school counselors from the early 2000s. The state would have to spend $75 million annually to get back to that level, according to a report by Minnesota Public Radio. To bring Minnesota’s counselor ratio to the national average would cost an additional $250 million a year.

But Kent’s plan is worth considering again as Minnesota enters a budget year and Republicans are in charge of both houses. Many of the biggest shortages of counselors are in outstate Minnesota, many areas represented by the new Republican majority.

We urge them to join with Democratic leadership to help support those schools in outstate and elsewhere that desperately need the help of counselors, social workers and other social support staff.

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