Barbour: Special session likely for Medicaid

Published 7:32 pm Friday, April 18, 2008

Mississippi lawmakers are on track to end their regular session without resolving structural problems with the Medicaid budget or reauthorizing the state employment agency — and Gov. Haley Barbour says if they do, he will call them back to the Capitol for a special session before June 30.

The new budget year starts July 1.

“It would not be responsible to let the next fiscal year start knowing that there is at least a $90 million hole in Medicaid funding,” Barbour told Capitol reporters Thursday.

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Lawmakers are trying to wrap up their 3 1/2-month regular session by Friday or Saturday.

Legislators have approved the Medicaid budget, but they still need to consider a hospital tax that would provide some of the money. Barbour says a consultant needs more time to study numbers for the hospital tax.

He also said a special session agenda also would include a plan to keep the Mississippi Department of Employment Security operating beyond July 1. State agencies periodically come up for review, and MDES is in that situation now.

Some House members added provisions to the MDES bill to regulate state agencies’ advertising contracts. Some lawmakers are upset that the state spends thousands of dollars to run ads on conservative talk radio stations.

Barbour said the spat over the radio spots is “one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard of in my life.”

Legislative financial officials say the first day of a special session costs $59,895. The tab for each subsequent day, without travel expenses, is $39,420. Only a governor can call a special session, and only he can set the agenda.

Many lawmakers believe that dispute over MDES is blocking a separate bill that would increase the weekly payments to people who are unemployed; a bill passed the House but died Wednesday in the Senate. Supporters were hoping to revive it, but that appeared unlikely.

Mississippi’s unemployment payment has been $210 a week since 2002. The bill would’ve increased that to $225 this July 1 and to $235 a year later. House Labor Committee Chairman Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, said Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant were holding the bill hostage.

“I don’t believe the governor nor the lieutenant governor should be playing games with people’s well being,” Straughter said Thursday.

Barbour said nobody can receive unemployment payments if the agency that handles the payments goes out of business.

Medicaid is a health program for the needy, aged and disabled and for low-income families with children. It covers about one in every four Mississippians. For every $1 the state spends on Medicaid, the federal government spends about $3.

The House on Thursday gave final approval to Medicaid’s budget for the year that starts July 1. The Senate approved the bill Wednesday, and Barbour said he expects to sign it into law.

The hospital tax affects the budget but is not part of the legislation that was just approved. It has to be handled separately because it would make a change in the general law that governs Medicaid.

Officials wrangled for weeks over whether to keep a 3-year-old requirement that Medicaid recipients go to a state office once a year to renew their enrollment. Supporters say requiring the in-person interviews helps reduce fraud. Opponents say it is a burden for poor people who often have to drive long distances.

Mississippi and New York are the only states with such a requirement. All other states allow Medicaid recipients to renew their coverage by mail.

Under a compromise reached by Barbour and legislators, nursing home patients, homebound disabled people and children with certain long-term health difficulties such as Down syndrome would no longer have to go to state offices once a year to renew their Medicaid coverage.

Some health advocates say the compromise is not good enough. They want Medicaid to eliminate the face-to-face interviews for everyone.

“Face-to-face is simply churning people on and off the program,” Roy Mitchell, director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, said this week. “The real-life implications of that are that children are going without health care, children are suffering and it’s adding to the cost of the administration of the Medicaid program.”

The bills are House Bill 1601, House Bill 872 and Senate Bill 2497.