Leery lawmakers thankful for Medicaid fix

Published 5:00 am Thursday, September 11, 2008

Local legislators couldn’t be more pleased with Gov. HaleyBarbour’s Monday announcement that Mississippi’s Medicaid programhas already been paid for, but questions are surfacing about howlong Barbour has known about the money and why he took so long inpresenting it to the public.

In his Monday press release, Barbour said the federal Centersfor Medicare and Medicaid Services would refund more than $90million – enough to pay for Medicaid for the 2009 fiscal year -from five years of overpayments.

The statement said the overpayments, which were attributed toerrors made during the administration of former Gov. RonnieMusgrove, were discovered in May – before the four-month, $600,000special session began.

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“I’m not going to badmouth anybody, but if he says the Divisionof Medicaid knew since May, I think we’ve wasted a lot of theLegislature’s time and taxpayers’ dollars,” said District 53 Rep.Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto.

Moak said it was clear to him that Barbour’s latest,controversial plan to make major cuts to Medicaid – which wasoriginally scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1 – was not approvedby CMS. He said the governor’s foray into Medicaid funding reformhas been politically motivated.

“He’s blasting Musgrove because Musgrove screwed up and gave himthe extra money to pull [himself] out of the fire,” Moak said ofBarbour’s statement, which blamed Musgrove repeatedly. “That’sfine, but evidently it took five years of [Barbour’s]administration to figure out the problem. Don’t be too quick aboutcasting stones.”

Moak pointed out that the Medicaid funding debates would resumenext year, as the $90 million federal refund is still only aone-time fix for the program. For now, he said he wouldn’t look fora place to lay blame for the state’s overpayments.

“We’re getting $90 million bucks, Medicaid isn’t going to becut… and I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth,” Moaksaid.

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, is ready to give thehorse a thorough inspection, however.

“I don’t think anyone would believe that CMS just looked at thisyesterday and said, ‘Hark, here’s an error,'” he said. “I believeit’s been there the whole time, and they found them at a time theythought would be beneficial politically to bring it out.”

Evans said he feels deceived by the governor and that otherHouse Democrats likely feel the same way. He said the deception -whether real or perceived – would have an impact when the Medicaidfunding debates resume next year.

Though Evans and other House Democrats this year supported ahybrid funding bill – one that would pay Medicaid’s deficithalf-and-half with hospital assessments and revenue from increasedcigarette taxes – he said Barbour’s latest act would drive theparty back toward demanding an all-or-nothing cigarette tax andmore.

“I think it’s going to be a tobacco and alcohol tax, perhaps anincrease in the gambling tax – all those old things we always callthe sin taxes,” he said. “We have a way to plug this gap withouttaking any money out of people’s pockets that they spend on thenecessities of life.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, while not ready togo to Evans’ extremes, is ready for the coming of the cigarettetax. After this year’s lengthy, sometimes dramatic, Medicaidbattle, she said the proceedings next year would take on a newtone.

“I think you’re going to find it a different fight, with moreplayers next time,” Currie said. “More people are going to say,’This didn’t turn out so well for my local hospital,’ and are goingto go with the cigarette tax.”

Currie said she would prefer to see cigarette tax revenueearmarked not just for Medicaid, but for several forms of healthcare like hiring school nurses and promoting health preventionprojects. Barbour wants any cigarette tax revenue to go into thegeneral fund.

“When you put money in the general fund, it’s a free for all asto who is going to get it,” Currie said. “I believe the majorityshould go to make sure our rural hospitals are not affected.”

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, is looking atMonday’s news from a different perspective than her Housecounterparts. She doesn’t care about blaming anyone for the $90million error and is content to save the funding debates for nextyear.

What worries Hyde-Smith is the fact that other budget errors mayexist.

“A $900 error would concern me, but a $90 million error trulyconcerns me,” she said. “I think we just need to get to the bottomof this, find out what happened and see if there’s any possibilitythat we have other $90 million errors in other budgets.”

Hyde-Smith, who deals directly with several budgets from herposition on the Senate Public Health Committee, said she shouldhave been informed of the error when it was allegedly discovered inMay.

“If the mistake was discovered so long ago that they alreadyhave a refund check printed, as slow as government works, thatcreates questions for me,” she said.