Medicaid, budget topics for legislature

When Mississippi lawmakers reconvene Tuesday, two topics will dominate.

One will be Medicaid, the federal-state program that now provides comprehensive health care to 600,000 of Mississippi’s 3 million residents. The two sub-issues are covering the pending $90 million shortfall in Medicaid funds due by the end of June and then, how to meet Medicaid’s rising needs in the looming fiscal year.

Gov. Haley Barbour has the simplest solution. He wants to reinstate the $90 million in “participation fees” hospitals anted up starting in 1995 to parlay into more money for more Medicaid clients. The practice was discontinued during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and hurricane relief money has been used to patch gaps. Federal stimulus money is increasing the match provided to state dollars for Medicaid. That means the $90 million can be parlayed 5 to 1 and result in a total of $540 million, by our math. That would cover needs this year and next year.

Not so fast, say House leaders who insist on calling the fees a “tax on the sick” mean old Gov. Barbour wants to impose. The fees eventually will come from patients, no doubt. But let’s not forget that Medicaid clients are getting services at no cost — so poor people will suffer no adverse consequence if the fee is reinstated. And without the fee, there’s no money to provide any services.

There are many other twists, turns and “what ifs” in the Medicaid funding picture, but most of what’s going on is posturing. Lawmakers have options to get the money. They just need to decide which to use.

The second issue is the overall budget for the spending year that starts July 1. In a “normal” year, the session would have ended in March. Much of the delay has been understandable, attributable to uncertainty about how much of the $2.8 billion coming to Mississippi from the stimulus bill would be available to the Legislature for what purposes and with what strings attached.

The Vicksburg Post