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Published: Wednesday, 6/27/2007

Budget plan for Ohio fills $167M hole; compromise cuts $40M in proposed nursing home funds

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Nursing homes took a hit last night to help patch a $167 million hole in the state's proposed $52.3 billion, two-year budget headed for final votes today.

A series of last-minute transfers of funds, lowered Medicaid caseload projections, and better-than-expected tax collections in the final few days of the current fiscal year filled the rest of the hole with nearly $17 million to spare, according to state budget Director J. Pari Sabety.

A House-Senate conference committee continued the unprecedented trend of unanimous approval as it sent the compromise budget to both chambers.

But first it cut $40 million in proposed nursing-home funding, half of the increase that cleared the Senate earlier this month. Gov. Ted Strickland had proposed no increase as his administration focuses on less costly in-home care.

"It's good to see a lot of emphasis on home care," said Peter Van Runkle, president of the Ohio Health Care Association. "But there are over 50,000 people in skilled nursing-care facilities. That's not going to change in the near future."

Mr. Strickland's proposal to expand health-care coverage for working-poor parents also fell victim to the numbers.

"Some of them have health conditions that they are unable to treat," said Cathy Levine, executive director of the Universal Health Care Action Network. "Others are unable to get screenings for potentially serious problems. This is a terrible shame."

The panel, however, created a new $4 million program allowing families who don't qualify for Medicaid to buy into government health insurance for children who are largely considered uninsurable because of pre-existing conditions or the formidable cost of coverage.

The budget also includes Mr. Strickland's proposed expansion of Medicaid health insurance to cover about 20,000 uninsured children whose parents are paid up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $62,000 a year for a family for four.

The panel fine-tuned the new $100 million Choose Ohio First scholarship program designed to lure college students into the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine.

The latest version requires public universities to create regional partnerships with public or private institutions and businesses. The partnerships could apply for scholarships to offer to students in amounts ranging from $1,500 to $4,600 a year.

Private universities objected to being left out of the pool of funds unless they join a cooperative that includes a state university. That, they said, could exclude smaller colleges not in the same league as Case Western Reserve University.

"If you're providing quality education in the state, you're going to do just fine," said House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering). "There's a competitive element to the world now in higher education that didn't exist before."

The budget includes $6.3 million to create specialty high schools for science, technology, engineering, and math in collaboration with local school districts and two grant programs to foster "programs of excellence" in these areas for grades K-8.

In other action, the panel:

•Largely left alone Mr. Strickland's centerpiece proposal of selling off 40 years of tobacco settlement payments to fund school construction and underwrite a record local property tax cut for senior citizen and disabled homeowners.

•Approved a top priority of Republicans, an expansion of the state's school voucher program to send 8,000 special education children currently in public schools to private programs or schools. The cost would divert up to $20,000 per student from public schools each year.

•Relaxed a law less than a year old preventing elected officials from awarding contracts to campaign contributors. The panel raised the threshold dollar value of a contract from $500 to $10,000 for local governments but left the $500 threshold alone for state officials.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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