Lawmakers at standstill over Medicaid funds

Published 5:00 am Monday, April 7, 2008

The Legislature may suspend its own rules for drafting billsthis week as the hunt for millions of dollars in lacking Medicaidfunding grows desperate with only two weeks remaining in theregular session.

After last week’s meetings between key legislators, executiveofficials and the Mississippi Hospital Association, the Senateresponded with Senate Concurrent Resolution 655. It would allow anew bill to be drafted that would would propose a new tax orassessment to collect the needed money.

One of the possible plans to emerge from last week’s meetingscalls for a $100 tax on any occupied non-Medicare bed in thestate’s hospitals. The plan is similar to Gov. Haley Barbour’srepeated calls for an increase in hospitals’ gross revenue tax, butis less demanding, said District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith,D-Brookhaven.

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“I oppose a hospital tax, but I think at the end of the day thehospitals will probably have to come up with some money,” saidHyde-Smith, one of the key Senate personnel working on the issue.”This plan will not be as severe as what the original tax wouldhave been, but nothing has been determined at this point.”

The Senate seems united behind the plan, but the House is not sothrilled. When the new resolution reached that chamber, it wasamended to once again call for increased taxes on cigarettes andalso liquor sales.

The standoff between the two chambers seems like it willcontinue.

” We’re at an absolute standstill right now,” said District 92Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven. “The House is not budging, theSenate is not budging … I have absolutely no idea what the endresult is gonna be, other than that we will fund Medicaid somehow.It’s just gonna come down to whose version of the bill istaken.”

Currie, like many other representatives in the House, opposesany new tax or assessment levied on hospitals for fear of theconsequences it would bring to the state’s smaller, rural hospitals- such as the reduction of staff, services or all-together closing.The resurrected cigarette – and now liquor – tax that died in theSenate earlier this session is still seen by many in the House asthe only way to fund Medicaid without damaging the hospitals’operations.

If there is another method, it has not been proposed. Eachchamber has stuck to its guns since the session opened.

Some House members are past the point of treading lightly.

“There’s an awful lot of politics in play here,” said District53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto. “You’ve got the House, whichlistens more to local constituencies and is more Democratic innature – and you’ve got the Senate, which will align itself withthe governor’s office and has for the past five years – there’s nota real goal to work toward getting something done this session onMedicaid funding.”

If the problem is not solved by the end of the session, thegovernor has the power to call the Legislature into specialsession, where he can set the agenda and limit the topicsdiscussed. The possibility of a special session is growing more andmore with every day in the Legislature, and the resolution callingfor a new bill may not be capable of preventing it – if it survivesat all.

“This resolution would have to pass, a bill would have to bedrafted and it would have to pass both chambers and go through thewhole process,” Moak said. “It has a long way to go.”

The coming week in the Legislature will see other, smallerfunding matters be handled as well, possibly among them funding forthe Mississippi School of the Arts. Funding for the school waspassed early in the session as part of House Bill 513, theall-encompassing education bill that funded the MississippiAdequate Education Program.

Wednesday, such bills dealing with appropriations will beexamined in conference. MSA does not appear to be in any danger,but any requests the school has beyond what is absolutely necessaryare likely to be axed, Currie said.

“MSA asked for two teachers, a principal and a new building,requests that go over their regular budget,” she said. “I don’tthink they’ll get the building, because the governor is not signingany new bonds. But the school is being fully funded – they may notget any extra, but I feel really good knowing they will be fundedto get through another year.”