Child welfare, health exchanges, crime discussed at Capitol

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January 4, 2012 - 6:00pm

Conflicting views on child welfare, health care and legal settlement money were in the air on the second day of the legislative session.

As lawmakers continued to introduce new bills, the Health and Human Services Committee got a briefing from state officials on child welfare costs. Kerry Winterer, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, said KVC, one of the private contractors running child welfare services, had asked in November for an additional $2.1 million a month to continue.

Sen. Bob Krist called that "extortion." "If you're telling me that KVC told us that they were going to take their pail and bucket and go home unless they got more money, then they have essentially grown to a position within this structure, where they are extorting money from this government," he declared.

KVC Behavioral Health Care Nebraska President Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, who was not at the hearing, said the company had not "sprung" anything on the state, and had been talking for months about the need for more money to make up for costs no longer covered by Medicaid. And Winterer said the department had negotiated KVC down to a one-time payment of $1.8 million while it worked on a new payment method.

"We could say KVC go away.' Take it (child welfare management) all back by January. That was one choice. Another choice was to find some way to fund them so they could stay around. And they wanted a heck of a lot of money to do that, which we really weren't willing to do. The other choice was to say let's find a way to keep them around in the short term and get to a case rate," Winterer said.

A case rate is a system whereby contractors are paid a set amount for each child served, and expenses rise and fall according to the number of those children. Department officials say that's better than simply paying all the funds that are available and budgeted. They say their goal is to reach a case rate by the end of January.

Meanwhile, legislation is being introduced that would return management of child welfare cases from contractors to the state. The administration has expressed concern about the costs, but senators like Krist say experience has shown the use of contractors has itself increased costs.

Meanwhile, on another health-related issue, senators introduced competing bills on establishing health care exchanges. Sen. Jeremy Nordquist's proposal would establish the exchange, or marketplace for people to shop for health insurance, under the direction of an appointed board. Sen. Rich Pahls' proposal would authorize, but not require, establishing an exchange under the direction of the Department of Insurance.

The proposals reflect different views of federal health care reform. Supporters want the state to go ahead and establish an exchange, critics including Gov. Dave Heineman want to wait until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the federal law.

Four bills relating to crime and punishment were also introduced by senators working with Attorney General Jon Bruning. Sen. Tony Fulton's proposal, inspired by the Casey Anthony case in Florida, would increase the penalty for concealing the death of another person from a misdemeanor to a felony, and add a new offense of attempting to prevent discovery of human remains. Sen. Ken Schilz would ban the production, use or possession of chemical compounds sold marketed as bath salts which, unlike traditional bath salts, are used to get high. Sen. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue would increase penalties for negligent child abuse resulting in serious injury or death. And Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh would restrict prisoners from filing lawsuits if courts had ruled three of their previous lawsuits frivolous.

Bruning also defended himself against criticism for awarding 100 thousand dollars in settlement money to a Farm Bureau-affiliated group called We Support Agriculture. Democrats have accused the Republican Attorney general, who's running for the U.S. Senate, of trying to curry favor with the politically influential Farm Bureau. Sens. Ken Haar and Heath Mello, both Democrats, have introduced bills to transfer authority over such money to the Legislature or the Environmental Trust.

Bruning accused the senators of playing politics. "This is all about the election. If I was not running for United States Senate, Sen. Mello and Sen. Haar and the coordinated effort of the Democratic Party would not be taking place," he said, adding they had not objected two years earlier, when he was running unopposed for Attorney General.

Bruning also said he would reply next week to charges by defense attorney Jerry Soucie. Soucie alleges that a drug the state wants to use for lethal injections was "stolen" by a middleman who diverted it from its intended use for research purposes and sold it to the state.




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