Lawmakers try to cover deficit in Medicaid

Published 6:00 am Monday, February 21, 2005

With funds for Medicaid expected to run out at the end ofFebruary, Lincoln County lawmakers are expecting “an eventful week”ahead as they and their colleagues try to cover a $268 milliondeficit in the health care program.

The House and Senate have passed differing bills in an effort toaddress the shortfall. Conference work is expected to start thisweek.

“It will definitely be a battle,” said District 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith, who anticipated some compromise would result from theprocess. “It may not be extremely palatable, but hopefully it willbe something we can all live with.”

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The House measure includes a 50-cent per pack increase oncigarettes while a Senate plan taps the state’s tobacco funds andseeks to remove civil service protection for state employees. Bothplans reduce the number of prescriptions and some other servicescovered by the program.

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak said the House is trying to addressshortfall with fee increases, service reductions and othermeasures. While the House proposals have received little support inthe Senate, he said the Senate’s tobacco fund and civil serviceprotection removal ideas have little backing in the House.

“Nobody wants to make the tough decisions, but it’s time to doit,” Moak said about finding a solution to the Medicaid issue.

Hyde-Smith indicated a mixture of proposals could develop duringthe conference process.

“It’s going to have to be a little of all of it and hopefully wecan meet the shortfall,” Hyde-Smith said.

While the current focus is on the current year deficit,lawmakers must also be prepared for Medicaid in the new yearstarting July 1. Moak said lawmakers are keeping that in mind.

“We’re trying to look at it in all areas,” Moak said. “We’retrying to get a base on which to build future budgets.”

The Medicaid issue is just one of many budget problems facinglawmakers during the 2004 session. District 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnettsaid lawmakers are at the point where “the rubber meets theroad.”

“Our income is not enough to meet our outgo,” Barnett said.

Recent budget talks have included the possibility of closingalmost all of the state’s parks, employee layoffs, mental healthfacility closings and other actions.

Barnett and Moak addressed the potential state parkclosings.

“In my opinion, we’re not going to close state parks,” saidBarnett, calling the discussions were a tactic being used asleverage for tax increase.

Barnett said he hoped to avoid a half-cent sales tax increase ifat all possible. He voiced support for increase in so-called “sintaxes” such as those on tobacco and alcohol.

“I will fight for those,” Barnett said.

Moak said some in government have gotten complacent. He said thestate parks discussion may be a way of shaking people out of thatstate of mind.

“Hopefully, what it’s done is wake some people up to the factwe’re in dire straits,” Moak said.

Moak said lawmakers are in the second half of session and havetoo many services for same amount of dollars. He said the firstpriorities are education, health care and law enforcement, andother services would have to be addressed somehow.

“If we want to keep everything just the way it is, we’ve got tohave some way to fund just the way it is,” Moak said.

Barnett was optimistic that solutions would be found.

“We’re going to make it,” said Barnett, adding that he welcomesconstituents’ calls and suggestions on fixing the budget problems.”I don’t want to see anyone lose their jobs, but I think that’sgoing to happen.”

Barnett said he believes normal attrition among state agencieswould lower the number of employees.

“Everybody’s going to have to tighten their belts,” Barnettsaid.