The Minnesota Legislature has this man's life in its hands

When Senate Republicans speak dismissively of the "sick tax," they're talking about the fund that saved Kevin Bunting's life.

When Senate Republicans speak dismissively of the "sick tax," they're talking about the fund that saved Kevin Bunting's life. Kevin Branting

Four days a week, you can catch Kevin Branting gently playing piano at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

He has been giving hours at a time at the keys for the last 12 years, playing soft love songs, show tunes, and some of his own compositions. He’s had plenty of patients tell him how much the music helps. They'd be frustrated or scared after an appointment, and they were soothed by the music and the gentle presence of his seeing-eye dog, Iliad.

Branting lives in a one-bedroom apartment near Dinkytown, and he lives there independently – something he doesn't take for granted. He’s trying to make it as a professional musician, which means he has to accept every paid gig he can get his hands on. But it’s tough with volunteer hours and his medical schedule. Between doctors and counselors and his rehabilitative mental health services worker, he spends pretty much every work day with some kind of health care provider.

And right now he’s stressed out. Based on what the Minnesota Legislature decides, everything that makes Branting’s life possible could be in jeopardy.

Branting was born to an alcoholic father and a chronically mentally ill mother – the former was soon out of the picture, and the latter was doing little but hauling him around “like a piece of luggage.”

He was born six weeks premature. His retina and optic nerves didn't have time to develop. He was deemed neglected at six months old and placed in foster care.

He needed eye surgery to correct his vision. He would have a half-dozen before he reached kindergarten. Sometimes he would spend weeks in the hospital by himself. That was all before he was adopted at age 6, and his troubles really began.

He kindly calls his adoptive parents “misguided.” They were staunch Christians with a rigid belief in corporal punishment.

“It seemed like they knew of no other way to raise a child,” he says. “They had no other tools in their toolbox.”

He endured physical, emotional, and sexual abuse “every day,” it seemed, until he was 15 or 16. During that time, he kept on the straight and narrow. He got good grades and took a keen interest in piano. By his teens, he was constantly performing and winning the esteem of listeners. The piano, he thinks, saved his life.

But by the time he went to college in 1988, in pursuit of a music degree, his damaged mental health was beginning to catch up with him. He became profoundly depressed and attempted suicide for the first time. He has been hospitalized for his own safety more than 100 times.

The only reason Branting has managed to stay out of the hospital for the past few years is because he’s able to see a psychiatrist and a therapist who specialize in early childhood trauma. He’s remained stable since 2013.

His most recent cornea transplant was in 2002 on his right eye. His left is totally blind. His goal is keeping what limited sight he still has by taking eight medications. Other services help him live independently, providing him with a Metro Transit pass, home-delivered meals, and an independent living consultant who helps him go to the bank and the grocery store.

Branting’s life is the best it has ever been, and that’s thanks in no small part to medical assistance. But all of that might be about to change.

Since 1992, Minnesota has been levying a 2 percent tax on medical providers. That revenue funds affordable health coverage through MinnesotaCare, Medicaid, and other public health programs – basically, Branting’s bread and butter. But thanks to a deal struck in 2011 in the wake of a 19-day state government shutdown, this tax has an expiration date: January 1, 2020.

This health care fund will probably have a surplus of nearly $600 million by that point, but it won’t last long. If the tax expires, it’s projected to have a deficit of almost $1 billion by 2023.

“It makes me think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve gone through so much in my life. Why do I have to worry about this now?’”

He doesn’t think it makes a lot of sense in the long run. These programs keep him out of the hospital, away from mental health crises and chronic eye infections. He’s less expensive in good health than in bad, and infinitely more beneficial to the patients he comforts with his music.

That’s not the way Senate Republicans see it. Their version of the health and human services budget bill doesn’t include the provider tax – the “sick tax,” as they call it -- which they say drives up health care costs.

But Democrats are fighting back. Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed budget keeps the tax entirely, and there are bills in the House (from Rep. Diane Loeffler, D-Minneapolis) and the Senate (Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis) proposing an extension.

So far, there has been little ground gained on either side – which, amid massive omnibus bills and a recent Trump administration cut to MinnesotaCare over the next two years, isn’t looking promising.

With his sight, his sanity, and his freedom on the line, Branting keeps playing – "My Heart Will Go On," "The Way We Were," even "Memory" from Cats. He will enjoy this hard-fought existence as long as it lasts. The rest is up to the Legislature.