Lawmakers miss deadline on Medicaid bill

Published 6:39 pm Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lawmakers missed a legislative deadline to pass a Medicaid bill that funded the program and eliminated the face-to-face meetings people must attend to keep the health coverage.

The bill was stymied on Monday in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant accepted a procedural challenge to the bill.

The House passed the bill 92-23. The Senate’s inaction on the bill by the midnight deadline sets the stage for a possible special session or may force lawmakers to extend the regular session that is scheduled to end on Saturday.

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The bill would have funded Medicaid for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

House negotiators spent more than an hour trying to convince their Senate counterparts to consider other options that would allow the face-to-face elimination. All the negotiators had signed off on the report before Monday.

House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, told the senators they had three choices for the legislation.

“You can take it or leave or fix it,” said Stringer. “You all are the ones that tore it up so you all ought to be the ones to fix it.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the only way Bryant would consider the funding bill was if the face-to-face elimination was stripped from it.

“I thought we had a very reasonable compromise but that was before the point of order was raised,” Nunnelee said, referring to the Senate’s challenge of language in the bill.

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, suggested the Senate had blocked the bill because Gov. Haley Barbour wanted them to. His comments drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton.

“Haley Barbour didn’t make that ruling. I resent you making that ruling about my (chamber) body,” Burton said.

Medicaid officials have maintained the nearly 3-year-old program that requires people to go to a local office to be re-certified weeds out fraud. Critics say face-to-face meetings are the reason thousands of poor, elderly and disabled people have been dropped from the rolls.

Holland said Mississippi and New York are the only states with the requirement. He said it’s time Mississippi moved in a different direction.

The bill debated Monday would have required face-to-face meetings only for initial certification for the program. Re-certification could be done by mail.

“I think it has been a hindrance instead of a help,” Holland said. “I think this will free the punitive burden placed on recipients.”

During a hearing on Medicaid last summer, Holland chastised Medicaid Executive Director Robert L. Robinson about the face-to-face meetings. He also threatened to rid the Medicaid law of the requirement.

Medicaid officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the legislation.

House Medicaid Committee Chairman Dirk Dedeaux, D-Perkinston, reminded the senators that there’s at least a $90 million budget hole in the bill. That’s the amount of money legislators had thought would be generated by a hospital bed assessment. The Mississippi Hospital Association had supported the proposal, but apparently has backed out of the deal.

The face-to-face eligibility determination began in 2005. Before then, people could be re-certified for the Medicaid program by mail.

Medicaid has 30 regional offices and 60 satellite offices for people to apply for the program. Advocates argue that many of the people trying to enroll have trouble with transportation.

The Mississippi Center for Justice released a report earlier this year that said another problem is that the satellite sites have limited hours of operation. In some cases, the offices don’t open at all, according to the report.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said many people are being denied access to the program.

“If you’re poor and you don’t have transportation and they’re only open a few hours a day, you can’t get there,” Brown said.

Medicaid officials estimated that over a 20-month period ending in December 2006, the program saved nearly $203 million with the re-certification program. Medicaid spokesman Francis Rullan said earlier that the figure is based on 78,000 people taken off Medicaid and other factors.

The bill is House Bill 1601.