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Lawmakers reject criticism over Medicaid votes

Two area legislators are responding to criticism levied on themby a health care advocacy organization for their recent votingrecord on Medicaid.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, and District 97Rep. Sam Mims V, R-McComb, are defending recent special sessionvotes that have drawn the ire of the Jackson-based MississippiHealth Advocacy Program. MHAP is a health care policy watchdogorganization that made its discontent known in an advertisementplaced in The DAILY LEADER on July 2.

MHAP Director of Advocacy Roy Mitchell said the ad, whichreferred to the two lawmakers as “Jack and Jill of the House ofRepresentatives” and criticized them for voting “against the healthinterests of their constituents,” was placed to let the public knowhow the legislators are really voting in Jackson.

“One of the things we do here is try to bridge the disconnectbetween public opinion and public policy,” Mitchell said. “A lot oftimes legislators get up here and vote one way and go home and sayanother. Local newspapers may reflect what they want theirconstituents to know, but often there’s a disconnect.”

Mitchell said the ad was placed against the representatives fortheir failure to back off their support for Senate Bill 2013 – thelegislation containing the $167 per day hospital assessmentproposed as a means to plug Medicaid’s $90 budget shortfall – andfind a compromise that includes increased tobacco taxes.

MHAP is particularly displeased with the lawmakers for votingagainst House bills 17 and 18 on May 29 and 30, two pieces oflegislation that would have prohibited Gov. Haley Barbour frommaking Medicaid service cuts until January 2009 and tapped thestate’s Rainy Day Fund to pay the program’s deficit,respectively.

Currie and Mims said there is no disconnect, however. Bothlegislators said their steadfast support for Senate Bill 2013 comesat the request of the hospitals in their districts.

Currie, who found herself separated from her party when shetwice voted in favor of a tobacco tax earlier in the 2008 regularsession, said she changed her stance to favor the assessment planbecause of the increased federal funding it would draw for Medicaidservices and because her constituents requested it.

“I changed my vote when the Mississippi Hospital Associationhired the guru from another state to come here and help write SB2013 so our hospitals would come out more profitable than they werebefore,” she said. “My two hospitals (King’s Daughters MedicalCenter and Franklin County Memorial Hospital) agreed to SB 2013 andasked me to vote for it.”

KDMC Chief Executive Officer Alvin Hoover said MHAP’s ad againstCurrie and Mims was unfair.

“Becky has been supportive of the hospitals, particularly KDMC,and she’s tried to do the right thing for hospitals,” he said. “Shehas asked me my opinion of things and I asked her directly tosupport that bill because it was an alternative to the cuts thegovernor has proposed.”

Hoover backed up Currie in an e-mail distributed to the KDMCstaff the day after MHAP’s ad ran. The message said Currie has”been a true leader in this debate” and supports SB 2013 at hisurging because KDMC and other hospitals have “[their] backs againstthe wall.”

Hoover, along with several other hospitals administrators,agreed that some increase in tobacco taxes would be preferable inthe final Medicaid funding solution. But with Medicaid cutspromised for Aug. 6 and tobacco tax increases having failed bothchambers of the Legislature repeatedly this year, Hoover and hiscolleagues said SB 2013 is necessary to keep the health care systemfrom becoming damaged.

“It’s my understanding that the governor has set the agenda andset it specifically to exclude a cigarette tax, so whatever happensout there will not get approved if it includes a cigarette tax,”Hoover said.

Mims pointed out that the assessment proposed in SB 2013 is nota new assessment, but the combination of taxes exacted fromhospitals since 1993. He said his primary hospital, SouthwestMississippi Regional Medical Center, supports the plan.

“The more taxes they put in, the more money they receive fromthe federal government,” he said. “They realize they have beenpaying this tax since 1993, and they are OK with the Senatebill.”

Both Currie and Mims believe MHAP’s criticism of their votes onMedicaid is rooted more in politics than policy.

Mitchell said MHAP has been working “single-mindedly” to lobbyfor the implementation of a tobacco tax increase since 2002, thoughit would be content with a compromise that includes a hospitalassessment.

But Mims called MHAP a “left-leaning” organization and said itscriticism was aimed at House Republicans.

“In five years, we’ve voted probably 20-something times to raisethe tobacco tax, and it’s all political,” he said. “Where was MHAPfrom 1999 to 2003? Democrats were in charge, and many members ofthe Legislature serving then are still there today – but there wasno push then to raise tobacco taxes. We didn’t see any advocacygroups or the attention we’re receiving today.”