Local legislators pleased with Medicaid bills

Published 12:15am Saturday, June 29, 2013

NATCHEZ — Local legislators say they’re pleased Mississippi’s Medicaid program will stay alive come Monday under two bills that lawmakers sent Friday to Gov. Phil Bryant.

Neither of the bills would expand Medicaid, a federal-state health insurance program that already covers more than 644,000 of the state’s nearly 3 million residents. Expansion is an option under the federal health law that President Obama signed in 2010, but Republicans who control the state House and Senate blocked Democrats’ efforts to extend coverage to another 300,000 people.

Bryant is expected to sign both bills that lawmakers have sent him. The two measures passed the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday. House Bill 1 would keep Medicaid funded beyond the end of the current state fiscal year, which expires Sunday. House Bill 2 contains the Medicaid budget for the year that starts Monday.

Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R-Natchez) said work on the Medicaid program, however, is far from over.

“We did the right thing by protecting the current program and reauthorizing the appropriation of funds to make sure it stays in place, but we realize that the program is in need of some serious reform measures,” Sojourner said. “This will give us a chance to sit down and discuss what a reform bill could look like and look to fix some things that providers and physicians say isn’t working.”

Because of a partisan dispute over Medicaid expansion, legislators ended their three-month regular session in early April without reauthorizing or funding Medicaid, which is why they’re in special session this week.

Sen. Kelvin Butler (D-Magnolia) said he was in favor of expanding the program, but was glad to at least see funding continue.

“It’s important that the folks on Medicaid right now still know they’re OK,” Butler said. “I think more and more we wanted to make sure we could take care of everyone, while trying to put some things in place for an expansion.”

Federal law says that starting next January, states can extend coverage to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 for one person.

The federal government would pay 100 percent of medical expenses for the newly qualified Medicaid enrollees from 2014 to 2017. The federal share would be reduced to 90 percent by 2020, with each state paying the balance. Bryant has said he doesn’t trust Congress to fulfill its funding promises, and he doesn’t want state government to be left with large obligations it can’t afford.

Medicaid is a primary source of money for many nursing homes, hospitals, pharmacists and other health care providers.

Natchez Community Hospital chief executive officer Eric Robinson said he was pleased with the Legislature’s decision, but that it also wasn’t a surprise.

“We expected that’s how it would go with all the Democrats and Republicans on different sides, but at least it’s taken care of for the next 12 months,” Robinson said. “Of course it’s a win that they decided to continue it, so I’d say we’re pleased with that.”

One bill that the Senate passed Friday night renews a hospital tax that helps fund Medicaid. Lawmakers had waited several hours Friday for Bryant to add the hospital tax to the agenda of a special session. Only a governor can call a special session and he controls the agenda.

Lawmakers had expected to handle the hospital tax in a separate bill.

Finally, without waiting for Bryant any longer, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves gaveled the Senate to order after 7 p.m. and quickly pulled up a Medicaid reauthorization bill the chamber had passed hours earlier, House Bill 1. Senators quickly revised the bill to add the hospital tax.

Then, just as quickly, the Senate ended its part of the special session. That rapid series of events forced the House to accept the Senate’s Medicaid plan to keep the program from going out of business at midnight Sunday into Monday.

House Bill 1 includes a repealer on parts of the Medicaid law — a provision that gives lawmakers leverage as they review how the agency is operating. That means lawmakers could have big debates about Medicaid in 2014.