Lawmakers get time to mull fix for Medicaid

Published 5:00 am Monday, July 7, 2008

Whether wanted or unwanted, lawmakers have been given one monthto speculate on the next step in the now eight-month campaign tofund Medicaid, as Gov. Haley Barbour used his authority Thursday tosend legislators home until Aug. 4, after another round ofnegotiation failed to find a compromise.

The House’s long opposition to a hospital assessment plan hasresulted in the death of the most comprehensive bill of that nature- Senate Bill 2013, which passed the Senate with ease earlier thisyear – and its constant attempts at instituting a tobacco tax havegrown contagious in the Senate.

Even with half of the year spent working toward a solution to plugMedicaid’s $90 million funding gap, the events of the past twoweeks at the Capitol – when SB 2013 effectively died and 22senators struck for a tobacco tax increase – have taken the stateback to square one, and local legislators are “curious.”

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“We’re in Wonderland,” said District 91 Rep. Bob Evans,D-Monticello. “Perhaps the governor thinks as more time goes by,the House will become less set against a hospital tax. But I’mconfident that the House has taken a position that it’s not gonnacome off of.”

Evans said the month-long hiatus – the second such “cool down”period so far in the special session – would be meaningless if anAugust compromise does not include an increase in tobacco taxes.Evans believes the House will accept a scaled down hospitalassessment, but only if it is matched by tobacco taxes.

The House’s stubbornness on the issue will only increase, Evanssaid, as the constant delays in funding Medicaid prove there is nocrisis.

“(Today) is the seventh, and no Medicaid service cuts have beenmade and nothing else has happened as per the dire consequencespromised by the governor for July 1,” Evans said. “The further wego … let’s face it – there ain’t no Medicaid crisis. It’s aconcoction.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said the pressure ismounting on the governor and Senate Republicans to back down andaccept a tobacco tax increase.

He thinks the hiatus may be geared toward just that. Moakpointed out that Barbour’s appointed tax study commission should benearing the end of its work.

“The governor has said he is for a cigarette tax, and by Aug. 4,it’s possible that his tax study could have a recommendation thatwould call for some sort of tobacco tax,” he said.

In the meantime, Moak said, the House will be watching throughoutthe rest of July to see what kind of Medicaid funding compromiseSenate leaders can iron out.

“We are waiting on the delivery of the promise made to us by Lt.Gov. Phil Bryant of a bed tax/tobacco tax combination,” he said.”As of yet, he has not delivered it. If it takes ’em a month, Isuppose it’ll take ’em a month. We’ll be waiting.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, agreed that tobaccotaxes will be forthcoming, but she supports the governor’s plan todistribute those revenues across other state programs, mainlyeducation.

“Today, we still have a good bill (SB 2013) that should be passed,”she said. “Then, legislators can come together, sit down andincrease the cigarette taxes and look and see where the best placeto spend that money is. It may be with a hospital tax, it may notbe.”

Currie said SB 2013 – which was never brought up for debate on theHouse floor but canned by Speaker of the House Bill McCoy – shouldbe passed as a secure, long-term funding solution for Medicaid.Unlike Evans and Moak, Currie believes Medicaid’s funding hole is acrisis.

“I would think that when we can’t send our dollar to Washington,D.C. and get three dollars back, that’s a crisis,” she said.”Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S., and one out of everyfour is on Medicaid. It’s vital to a lot of people, much less thehospitals.”