Miss. governor says he could run Medicaid program

Published 12:00 pm Friday, May 10, 2013

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant says he thinks he can run Medicaid even if lawmakers don’t reauthorize the program or set its budget by the time the state’s new fiscal year starts July 1.

“As head of the Governor’s Division of Medicaid, I will do all I can to continue and to provide Medicaid to the citizens who qualify in the state of Mississippi,” Bryant said Wednesday. “That is my legal argument. If someone wants to challenge me in court, what is their argument?”

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported Bryant’s remarks and said he spoke about Medicaid after taking part in a tourism event at the state Capitol.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Bryant appoints the Medicaid director and said he has the authority to keep the program operating after the new fiscal year begins. He also said it’s his job to make sure Medicaid recipients who live in nursing homes are not “thrown out on the street.”

Lawmakers ended their three-month regular session last month without reauthorizing or funding Medicaid, a federal-state health care program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled.

Attorney General Jim Hood believes a governor cannot unilaterally run a state agency, Hood spokeswoman Jan Schaefer said. She cited a previous fight over the Department of Human Services. After lawmakers failed to reauthorize DHS for the year that began July 1, 2004, Hood persuaded a chancery judge to keep the agency alive. The judge appointed then-Gov. Haley Barbour and the DHS executive director to act as administrators for it.

However, there’s a difference between the 2004 situation with DHS and the current situation with Medicaid. In 2004, legislators had already adopted a budget for DHS. Now, there’s no budget for Medicaid for the coming fiscal year.

During the 2013 session, lawmakers had a partisan dispute about Medicaid expansion. Democrats said it would be foolish to bypass federal money that would pay for most of the tab, and Republicans said the state can’t afford to put up to 300,000 more people on the program. Medicaid already enrolls more than 640,000 in a state with about 3 million residents.

House Democratic Leader Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto told The Associated Press on Wednesday it would be difficult for the governor to run Medicaid without legislative approval and that Bryant would have to take money from the general fund or cut essential programs to make that possible. The state Medicaid budget for fiscal 2013, which ends June 30, was about $160 million, according to the Legislative Budget Office.

Many lawmakers have been expecting Bryant to call a special session before June 30 to push for reauthorization and funding of Medicaid. Some state agencies come up for review and renewal by the Legislature every few years.

“Look, I’m not the governor, I’m not the one that gets to call the special session,” Moak said. “It takes some leadership out of the governor’s office to get the parties together and get that done. If he’s waiting on me to give him a call and tell him how the special session should be run, I would be happy to do that.”

Only a governor can call a special session, and he controls the agenda. Moak and many other Democrats have said they want Bryant to include Medicaid expansion on the list of things lawmakers can consider during a special session. Bryant, however, is unlikely to do so, and he has said he’d call a special session only after House and Senate leaders reach a broad agreement about what they’d approve.

Under the health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, states have the option of extending Medicaid coverage to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. At 138 percent of the poverty level, a person would have an income of about $15,000. The Medicaid income cutoff in Mississippi now is about $5,500, and even under that limit, the state still does not cover many adults.