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Medicaid impasse may linger until ’09 regular session

With Gov. Haley Barbour and the Senate locked in a game oflegislative chicken with the House over Medicaid funding, locallawmakers are beginning to lose enthusiasm as a special sessionresumes today at 2 p.m.

“We’ve got some conferees that have been working on this and,hopefully, we can come to some type of agreement,” said District 39Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven. “If not, we just need to waituntil the regular session in January. We don’t need to stay upthere forever in a Mexican standoff – it’s too expensive for thetaxpayers.”

While the Senate has signed off on the governor’s hospital bedassessment – supported by the Department of Medicaid and theMississippi Hospital Association – the House refuses to approve ofthe plan. Three alternatives were presented and defeated in thatchamber last week as House Democrats pursue a tobacco tax increaseto replace the proposed assessment.

However, there is no sign of backing down from eitherlegislative chamber. The House has repeatedly defeated thegovernor’s assessment plan, which mustered only 45 votes during itsfirst presentation on the floor, and Hyde-Smith said the Senate’sMedicaid Committee chairman would not bring an altered version ofthe plan to a vote in the Senate.

Hyde-Smith said Medicaid will not face a serious monetary crisisuntil March of next year and the Legislature could just walk awayat this point, saving the issue for the 2009 regular session.

“If I can be productive, I’ll stay here as many hours as ittakes,” Hyde-Smith said. “If I can’t, then all I’m doing is wastingmoney, and that’s not something I’m willing to do.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said there was noMedicaid crisis and the Legislature should adjourn “very quickly”Tuesday. He is in favor of the passage of a House bill sent to theSenate last week that calls for the state’s $300 million Rainy DayFund to be used to plug Medicaid’s $90 million shortfall until along-term solution can be ironed out next year.

“(Tuesday), the House should say, ‘Here it is, we’ve done this,we’ve had it all along – mystery solved, Medicaid funded,'” Moaksaid. “We can fix it, and as the governor likes to say, we’re notraising anybody’s taxes. That’s the House’s position, and we’vealready done it.”

Moak reiterated his claim that “the sky is not falling” downaround the Medicaid program – the special session was called simplyto take the focus off the governor’s recent post-sessionvetoes.

“The special session is about shifting political heat ratherthan taking care of a Medicaid issue that might not actually be anissue,” he said. “Even if it is, we have plenty of time to dealwith that in the regular session.”

The only thing seemingly stopping both chambers from adjourninguntil next year is a threat made by Barbour last week to begincutting millions of dollars worth of programs from Medicaid if thehospital assessment plan is not passed by the House.

Some House members – mainly Republicans – have bought into thethreat and support the proposed hospital assessment.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, supported theassessment before the governor made his threat. After opposingsimilar bills during the regular session and voting alongside HouseDemocrats in favor of a tobacco tax increase, Currie has given hersupport to the assessment in the hopes of fixing Medicaid once andfor all.

“There’s no reason for us not have this bill done, because it’sa good bill,” she said. “For the first time, we’d have a long-termsolution for funding Medicaid. If the House wants to put it offuntil January, that’s fine – the governor will start cuttingMedicaid.”

Currie still holds some resentment that the House MedicaidCommittee did not look for potential program cuts during theregular session. She said she asked on several occasions if thecommittee could examine the worth of some programs that may beoutdated or little-used, but no attempt to weed out such programswas made.

“I felt like I could find the $90 million if they just let me goback and look,” she said. “But nobody went back to look.”

One legislator that refuses to give up the fight is District 91Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello. Evans cast a vote of “yea” in all ofthe House’s attempts to defeat the governor’s hospital assessmentplan, and even voted against a hybrid plan mixing both a bedassessment and tobacco taxes to maintain his yearlong stanceagainst the bed assessment.

“The hybrid bill was a step in the right direction, but stillnot a sufficient step for me,” Evans said. “I will not support anykind of new tax on hospitals and hospital patients.”

Evans said he would continue to oppose the hospital assessmentplan and called the numerous reports that the hospital agrees withthe plan “propaganda.” He said the association’s agreement, inlight of the governor’s threats to cut Medicaid, were like agreeingat gunpoint.

“To me, it’s an attempt at extortion,” Evans said. “Any time youagree to something under duress, it’s not a choice – it’s anacquiescence.”