Barbour says opponents wrong about Medicaid

Published 7:07 pm Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mississippi lawmakers made little progress in solving Medicaid’s budget shortfall Wednesday as they returned to the Capitol to continue a prolonged special session.

It’s not clear whether they’ll finish their work before the Fourth of July weekend.

Officials are trying to plug a $90 million hole in the Medicaid budget for the fiscal year that began Tuesday. The special session started in late May, and lawmakers have met sporadically since then. The session has cost taxpayers more than $508,000 so far.

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House and Senate leaders have been negotiating.

“We continue to try to reach some understanding, at least a framework, a beginning,” Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant told the Senate late Wednesday.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said his political opponents — House Democrats — are “putting 5,000 health care jobs in jeopardy” by blocking his proposal. Barbour has said he’ll start cutting millions of dollars in payments to Medicaid providers unless lawmakers approve his plan to restructure hospital taxes to help pay for the program.

“Mississippians should not be confused by misinformation spread by those who, instead of supporting the only fair, permanent, and sustainable solution to fully fund Medicaid, would rather support their own political agendas,” Barbour said in a news release.

The governor said his plan is fair and would increase hospitals’ payments to the state by only six-tenths of 1 percent.

Medicaid relies on a combination of federal and state dollars. It covers the needy, aged, blind and disabled and low-income families with children. About one in every four Mississippians is on the program.

Some hospital administrators say they might have to lay off employees if they lose significant amounts of Medicaid money.

House Democrats say Barbour has manufactured a Medicaid crisis. They say the program’s budget could be completed in January or later, as is routinely done with Medicaid and other state programs.

Barbour had said he would start cutting some Medicaid payments when the budget year began Tuesday, but by late Wednesday, he still hadn’t done it.

The governor on Wednesday said he had asked Medicaid officials to file court papers asking a Hinds County chancery judge to speed up his consideration of a lawsuit that the Mississippi Hospital Association and 43 hospitals filed in September 2006.

The lawsuit sought to block the Division of Medicaid from putting an assessment — some said tax — on the hospitals to help pay for Medicaid.

The proposal challenged in the 2006 lawsuit is different from the hospital tax Barbour is promoting now, but the two plans aimed to address the same problem: The federal government told Mississippi in 2005 to stop using part of a complicated formula that had helped pay for Medicaid.

The state has patched the Medicaid budget the past three years by using millions of dollars from other parts of the state budget, including some federal money the state received to cover increased Medicaid expenses after Hurricane Katrina. In some years, the state’s general tax collections have been higher than expected, and some of that extra money has been put into Medicaid.

Barbour says the program’s budget formula has been in limbo for too long and he wants a solution now.