Lawmakers have no choice but to solve Medicaid crisis

Published 6:00 am Friday, March 11, 2005

Barring a last-minute breakthrough, Mississippi’s Medicaidprogram will run out of money before the day is through.

Attorney General Jim Hood said the program could borrow $100million to keep it going – a claim Gov. Haley Barbour and someother officials dispute and a move that would keep Medicaid up andrunning for just a few weeks more. This is not the solution weneed.

Despite knowing full well this train wreck was coming, theLegislature has abdicated its duty to find and fund a solution tothe Medicaid mess. More than two months into the 2005 session,lawmakers have found the time (and votes) to designate a statereptile (the American alligator, if you’re keeping score) and namea horse arena for a former governor (the late Kirk Fordice), whilethe de facto health insurance plan for fully one quarter of ourstate’s residents lies on its death bed.

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Lawmakers, Barbour, Hood – as well as his predecessor Mike Moore -all have been swift to pay lip service to the impendingcatastrophe, but only the governor has offered a plan to bringMedicaid spending in line with available funds. And his plan wasquickly blocked by Democratic lawmakers and a federal judge.

The Legislature and the governor must be willing to compromise;Hood must set aside his transparent political aspirations for nowand act for the good of Mississippians; and Moore must be remindedhe chose not to seek re-election and is, therefore, all butirrelevant to the current discussion.

As we’ve said before, there is plenty of blame for the Medicaidmess to go around.

The Medicaid roll ballooned under the administration of former Gov.Ronnie , who approved making benefits available to Mississippiansearning as much as 135 percent of the federal poverty level – moregenerous than any other state. This foolish move is largelyresponsible for the cash-strapped status of the program today.

Medicaid, like any public or private entity, must be fiscallyresponsible to survive. It is not.

The painful truth – for recipients and for lawmakers who musteventually stand for re-election – is that the state may be leftwith little choice but to trim from the Medicaid roll thoseMississippians who are at or above the poverty level.

The state must also be vigilant in sniffing out those who abuse thesystem – those who have well-paying jobs yet continue to feed fromthe public trough. Lax enforcement of the rules is clearlyunacceptable.

Lawmakers, too, must take it on the chin for their stubbornness toaddress the shortfall before it reached the crisis stage. Itdoesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that spending more than onetakes in is a sure path to bankruptcy, a basic principle from whicheven the government is not exempt.

Simply put, our lawmakers got us in this mess, and it is up to themto get us out.

House leaders have said they are willing to dip into the state’stobacco lawsuit settlement fund (an idea the governor and Senateleaders have long supported), provided the money is repaid -through a tax hike on cigarettes, they suggest.

As much as it pains fiscal conservatives, a tax increase, at thisstage of the game, seems nearly inevitable, and a cigarette taxincrease is clearly more palatable than a sweeping,across-the-board income or general sales tax hike.

But before any take hike is considered, every possible cut shouldbe made. If lawmakers would commit to cutting a dollar in spendingfor every dollar in higher taxes, the budget shortfall could besolved in half the time.

Already, lawmakers are talking of the possibility – even thelikelihood – of extending the legislative session to addressfunding for Medicaid, education and other programs in trouble.That’s talk we just refuse to hear.

An extended session (or a string of special sessions) will only dotwo things – first, allow the Legislature to continue to shirk itsduty to make tough choices and second, cost the state money it canill afford.