Barbour: Medicaid cuts could take effect in August

Published 6:43 pm Friday, July 11, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour says he will file papers Friday to start a nearly monthlong process of cutting millions of dollars from the Medicaid program.

He said the cuts will happen Aug. 6 unless lawmakers patch a $90 million hole in the program’s budget before then. The House and Senate return to the Capitol on Aug. 4 to restart an on-again, off-again special session in which Medicaid has been the biggest fight.

Barbour said cuts could affect nursing homes, pharmacists and other health care providers who aren’t directly involved in a political fight over hospital taxes.

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The Republican governor wants lawmakers to approve his plan to restructure hospital taxes to help pay for Medicaid, a government health care program for the needy and disabled. But House Democrats want to consider a combination of hospital taxes and a cigarette tax increase.

Barbour said he has a suggestion for patients, physicians, pharmacists, nursing home operators and others who could lose Medicaid coverage or money.

“Tell them to talk to their House members and get their House members to quit holding the doctors and the nursing homes hostage to the House members’ political agenda,” Barbour said during a news conference Thursday. “That’s what I would have my doctor do.”

House Medicaid Committee Chairman Dirk Dedeaux, D-Perkinston, said many House members are firm in wanting a cigarette tax increase. At 18 cents a pack, Mississippi’s cigarette excise tax is one of the lowest in the nation.

Dedeaux said that “taxes for health care should not be levied against the people who are trying to solve health problems, but it is reasonable to tax things that cause health problems, such as tobacco.”

The governor controls the agenda of a special session, and Barbour would have to give lawmakers permission to consider a cigarette tax.

Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Wayne Dowdy said Barbour’s plan to cut Medicaid is unnecessary. Dowdy pointed to Barbour’s record as a former tobacco lobbyist.

“Gov. Barbour is simply protecting his big tobacco friends by refusing to solve the Medicaid funding problems with an increase in one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation,” Dowdy said in a news release. “That’s wrong. And it’s flat-out offensive.”

Barbour has said repeatedly that he’s not trying to protect tobacco companies.

For every $1 Mississippi spends on Medicaid, the federal government spends more than $3. Barbour said a $90 million shortfall in state money translates to a total annual loss of $375 million.

Barbour discussed his plan to start Medicaid cuts shortly after a judge ruled Thursday against the governor in a lawsuit that hospitals filed two years ago to challenge part of a Medicaid budget plan Barbour had proposed.

Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary ruled that the Division of Medicaid does not have the authority to set taxes or fees that hospitals must pay. He said only the Legislature has that power.

Dozens of hospitals filed a lawsuit two years ago challenging a tax Medicaid tried to make them pay in 2006.

Barbour said he didn’t know whether he would appeal Singletary’s ruling. The governor had sought a court decision as a way of ending the fight with lawmakers over how to pay for Medicaid.

The tax plan Barbour is pushing now is different from the one that prompted the 2006 lawsuit. But if the governor appeals and wins, the Division of Medicaid would get to set taxes hospitals must pay to support the program.

“The court is not unmindful of the current political climate in which this issue is framed,” Singletary, a former lawmaker, wrote in his nine-page ruling. “Such circumstances are, however, beyond the proper consideration of this or any court.”

Hospital attorneys would not comment on the ruling as they left the Hinds County Chancery Courthouse.