Barbour sticks to Medicaid objection

JACKSON – Philip Copeland was getting his teeth pulled and being fitted for false teeth when his dentist told him that Tuesday would be the last day he accepted Medicaid patients.
“I guess I will have to wait three or four months now,” said Copeland, a 49-year-old disabled Booneville resident.
Last week, with state leaders unable to agree on a budget, Gov. Haley Barbour said Medicaid was no longer providing payments this year to health care providers.
But, he said, Medicaid patients would continue to be treated because the health care providers would be fully reimbursed when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
But with July 1 now only a week away, it is becoming less likely that Barbour and the Legislature can agree on a budget before then.
This past weekend, House and Senate leaders announced they had reached a budget agreement, but Barbour objects to a provision that prevents him from making cuts to hospitals if Medicaid has a deficit.
As a result, he has refused to call the Legislature back for a special session to vote on it.
“I can’t agree to that…If Medicaid is given a blank check for spending, that is a ticking time bomb for Mississippi taxpayers,” said Barbour during a teleconference Tuesday morning from Washington, D.C., where later in the day he held a news conference with U.S. House Republicans on health care.
Today and Thursday he is scheduled to be in Iowa and New Hampshire – two states that traditionally hold early presidential primary elections and thus considered keys for any candidate running for president.
A spokesman for Barbour refused Tuesday to give his travel plans for the rest of the fiscal year. Despite criticism of his being out of state during negotiations, Barbour has said he is constantly in touch with what’s going on in the Capitol.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Billy McCoy urged Barbour to call a special session to allow the Legislature to vote on the budget agreement.
He said the legislative process would give Barbour the opportunity to get the Medicaid provision removed.
“If he is successful,” McCoy said, “he has what he wants… If he is not, that is the democratic process as the founders intended.”
And McCoy said that if Barbour does not prevail, he can always veto the legislation, and if the Legislature cannot muster the two-thirds majority needed to override his veto, he will be in a position of strength in new negotiations.
But Barbour said, “I am not calling a special session now because we are not ready. We have not reached an agreement. I hope we will have an agreement soon on how to balance the budget.”
He added that it is better to work out Medicaid at “the leadership level than to ask 174 members to resolve the issue.”
Hob Bryan, D-Amory, the key Senate Medicaid negotiator, supported Barbour’s efforts to garner a $90 million tax increase from hospitals.
He said the protection from cuts was included in the agreement because under the compromise he worked out with the House leaders, the hospitals would pay least an additional $60 million in taxes.
Since they were being asked to pay more in taxes, they should not be subject to cuts, Bryan reasoned.
“The point I am trying to make is that this (agreeing to the tax increase) is really a big step on the side of the House,” Bryan said. “It is getting close to what the governor wants. And his response should be something other than ‘this is bad, I will not take it.’ ”
Bryan said the Medicaid agreement the House and Senate worked out is so close to what the governor wants “one wonders how he can keep from going out and declaring victory.”
Barbour said he would agree to the $60 million tax increase instead of the $90 million, but would not agree to the loss of his authority to cut hospitals’ Medicaid payments.
“I have compromised on this issue,” said Barbour, adding “the hospitals want a blank check.”
It is not clear what will happen on July 1 if there is no budget agreement. Barbour said “critical services” still would be provided.
In Booneville, Philip Copeland said the disagreement already is hitting close to home.
“This is a shame they can’t work out a budget,” he said. If dentists and health care providers are not accepting Medicaid payments, he said, “the state is up the creek.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal