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Lawmakers back for more work on Medicaid fix

Hospital administrators and medical personnel across the statewill be keeping a close eye on the news throughout Thursday, as thestate Legislature returns to Jackson after a three-week adjournmentto try – one more time – to approve a funding solution forMedicaid.

The fate of some hospitals seemingly hangs in the balance, asthe reconvening of the House and Senate on Thursday comes just daysbefore the start of the 2009 fiscal year on July 1. That also isthe day Gov. Haley Barbour has repeatedly threatened to cutmillions of dollars in services out of Medicaid in order to closeits $90 million budget hole.

The governor’s cuts would have a severe effect on the hospitalsin Southwest Mississippi since the rural establishments stand tolose thousands – and in some cases millions – of dollars inunrecoverable Medicaid funds.

But the solution so far – Senate Bill 2013, which calls forcalling for a $167 per day assessment on hospitals and drawn up bythe governor’s office, the Division of Medicaid and the MississippiHospital Association – has received scorn from Democrats in theHouse, who have tried a myriad of different bills to fund Medicaidwithout the assessment plan.

Local legislators were as curious as everyone else on the eve ofthe reconvening. Speculation ranged from an immediate adjournmentThursday afternoon to a lengthy session, and from another round ofcigarette tax bills from House Democrats to the caving in of theblue party and acceptance of SB 2013.

“I don’t think we’re gonna solve a thing,” said District 92 Rep.Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven. “I don’t think the Democrats are goingto back down.”

Currie said the House Medicaid Committee, of which she is amember, would meet Thursday at 10 a.m., four hours before theLegislature convenes at 2 p.m.

“The only reason they would call a committee meeting before 2p.m. is that they’ve obviously thrown together a new bill and I’msure it’s going to have a cigarette tax in it,” she said. “It won’tmake it out of the House. I really and truly believe we’ll be home(Thursday) – two bills will come up, neither will pass and we’ll gohome, and the governor will start making cuts.”

Currie said she would support the Democrats’ efforts to raisethe state’s tobacco tax “100 percent” in 2009, but will continue tosupport SB 2013 as a long-term solution to Medicaid funding.

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, in comments madelast week and a letter mailed Wednesday, has made known hisintentions to fight SB 2013 – but not to the death.

“Are we going to let this occur? No.” Moak said. “Even if itmeans we have to support some sort of bed tax in order to stop thegovernor and lieutenant governor from making those cuts. It’sbecome surreal that the two top elected leaders of this state wouldbe in concert to see that happen.”

Moak said he plans to take the floor Thursday and ask his fellowrepresentatives to “take a stand” on a possible futureimplementation of cigarette tax to offset the bed tax in SB 2013.He also wants legislators to have one last shot at supportingMedicaid from the state’s Rainy Day Fund – which contains more than$300 million in tax money – and ironing out a lasting solution nextyear.

Even though he is willing to “take the bullet” and support theassessment plan, Moak is among those in the House who believe theentire Medicaid crisis is fabricated.

“The governor does not have to make cuts in July 1, the law doesnot demand it,” he said. “The governor is making cuts because hewants to make cuts, to force a bed tax on hospitals. We’ve hadthese Medicaid shortfalls for the last several years, while he’sbeen in office, and he hasn’t chosen to make cuts before. He’s justusing his raw political power.”

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, holds a similar view.He is not convinced of a crisis, nor does he plan to accept SB 2013without a long, hard look – and an attempt to find anothersolution.

“I’ve had so much contact from hospital administrators andemployees, I’m gonna look at (SB 2013) again,” Evans said. “Mypersonal position has not changed, but I don’t want in any way toallow Haley Barbour the chance to do the execrable things he’sthreatened to do. If I have to reevaluate, I’ll reevaluate -although I believe our position was the correct one.”

Evans said his promise to re-evaluate was not “an automaticbiting of the bullet,” but he said his biggest concern was whetheror not he would even have the chance. He and other legislators haveheard rumors that Speaker of the House Billy McCoy plans to “sinedie” – adjourn the House from the special session – almostimmediately Thursday.

“I’m certainly not gonna sit here and deny that it’s been talkedabout,” Evans said. “I don’t think it’s gonna happen – I hope wedon’t do that. I’m one of these that wants to pursue every anglethere is.”

While another showdown prepares to get under way in the House,District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, can only sit andwatch.

“Basically, the House is the controlling partner right now,” shesaid. “We’re just gonna have to see how it plays out.”

Hyde-Smith agreed with her Democratic counterparts in the Housethat there is no crisis – Medicaid has enough funds to survivethrough to March 2009, she said – but said she wants the Medicaidproblem fixed.

“If we don’t do anything, we can take care of it in January, butI would love to see us pass something to vote on and resolve this,”she said.