Juvenile justice bill advances; expanded Medicaid argument continues

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May 15, 2013 - 5:37pm

A proposal to provide more treatment for troubled youth is advancing in the Nebraska Legislature, and supporters of expanding Medicaid are waging an uphill battle to get a vote on their bill this year.

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha is sponsoring the proposal that aims to change the state’s juvenile justice system. Among other provisions, it would add $10 million a year for the next two years to develop services for juveniles across the state.

Those services could include alternatives to jail, such as ankle bracelets, as well as services to families of troubled youth. Ashford said that’s one of the most important parts of the bill. "Not only will families be dealt with at the very beginning, at the inception of a problem with the juvenile system, we’ll start working with the families and with the juveniles," he said. If youth are sent to a treatment facility, intensive therapy will be provided when they return to their community. "This is a model that’s being used across the country. It’s something we do not do effectively. We do little bits of it. And I think it’s really one of the critical parts of the bill," he said.

Ashford’s bill would also transfer about $41 million from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Office of Probation. That means juveniles will not have to become wards of the state in order to get services.

The bill does not close the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center at Kearney, for boys, or Geneva, for girls, as originally proposed. But Ashford said Kearney would be restructured to house fewer young people, with more of an emphasis on treatment. The bill got second round approval on a voice vote.

Meanwhile, back-and-forth continued over Medicaid expansion. The issue was debated last month, but taken off the agenda when it became clear supporters did not have enough votes to overcome a filibuster against it.

Wednesday, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers excoriated senators who call themselves pro-life for not supporting Medicaid expansion. "You know why you worry about the unborn? ‘Cause you don’t have to feed them. You don’t have to give ‘em medical care. You can spout and yap and not have to back it up with action," he said.

That drew a sarcastic response from Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh. "I guess if I don’t favor having a health insurance policy that’s mandatory with a very low deductible, then I should just favor repealing child abuse laws and making murdering children legal, because if I’m not willing to do everything you want me to do for children, and everything you think I should do for children, then I shouldn’t do anything for children ever," he said. "Some of you cannot concede that it is possible for people to just disagree."

Actually, children from low income families are already covered under the state’s existing Medicaid program. The new Medicaid program in dispute would cover adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line – that’s a little less than $27,000 for a single mother with two children.

Advocates of expanding Medicaid were rallying outside the Capitol Wednesday afternoon. Speaker Greg Adams, who removed the bill from the agenda, has agreed with Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell that he would put it back on if she gets enough senators to commit to voting against a filibuster. That would require 33 votes; Campbell said as of Wednesday afternoon she did not have more than 30.



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