Deal keeps health agency up, running

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – An agreement that kept Medicaid from shutting down at midnight Tuesday passed with about 90 minutes to spare despite some disagreements, occasional harsh words and roadblocks on an eventful final day of the special session.
Without passage, health care for more than 600,000 elderly, disabled and poor pregnant women and children would have been placed in jeopardy.
Legislators, trying to fund Medicaid and a few other budgets where disagreements remained Tuesday night, faced a midnight deadline on two fronts. At midnight, the new budget year began, and at midnight, based on an agreement made earlier by both legislative chambers, the special session was scheduled to end.
The full Legislature did not have much time to work on Medicaid. Gov. Haley Barbour did not add Medicaid to the special agenda until mid-morning Tuesday. He had said he would not add Medicaid to the agenda until an agreement was reached between him and House and Senate negotiators. The agreement was reached about 11 p.m. Monday.
On Tuesday, House members, many normally loyal to the Democratic House leadership that was trying to pass the proposal, complained they did not have time to study the complex bill, which was not available until about 1 p.m.
The agreement first got bogged down in the House Medicaid Committee where amendments were added that House leaders feared could negate the deal they worked out with Barbour. The amendments were removed later in the process.
“This is the best we can come up with,” said House Medicaid Committee Vice Chairman Robert Johnson, D-Natchez. “We are at the hour … we are at the point where we need to get a bill out of the House as quickly as possible.”
Johnson said the bill “had enough unpleasantries for everyone in the House, but at the end of the day we will have a Medicaid program.”
Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, said, the fact the midnight deadline was near was not the fault of the Legislature.
“We did not ask to be put in this box – this last-minute quagmire,” Ellis said. “The governor knew full well about what was about to take place. …To be put in this box and say take it or leave it is completely unacceptable.”
Medicaid details
The House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on Medicaid more than a week ago. But Barbour objected to that compromise and said he would not call a special session to fund the new budget year until an agreement was reached with him on Medicaid. The current special session started Sunday. Legislators spent two days passing bills funding other sate agencies before the agreement was finally reached on Medicaid late Monday night.
The agreement eventually passed the House about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday by 72-40 vote and then was sent to the Senate where is was passed in less than two hours. It includes a tax increase of $60 million on hospitals for the next two years. The tax, which is set to repeal after three years, could be as much as $90 million the final year.
Barbour and the Senate leadership had wanted a permanent tax increase of $90 million for hospitals. The agreement limits the amount the governor can cut the program to resolve a Medicaid deficit. The plan also limits how much Barbour can cut the payments to hospitals for treating Medicaid patients.
The debate of the bill in the House was at times contentious. The process was delayed in the House by more than two hours as the clock ticked closer to midnight because members opposed to the bill demanded it be read before final passage. It took more than two hours to read the lengthy bill.
At the crux of the Medicaid issue was a feud between Barbour and the Mississippi Hospital Association that earlier went to court to block the Republican governor from imposing the tax without legislative authority.
Barbour did not add Medicaid to the special session agenda until Sam Cameron, president of the Hospital Association, agreed that the Hospital Association would not lobby for the compromise to be amended in the legislative process.
In a news conference on the second floor of the Capitol attended by about 50 hospital administrators, Cameron criticized the operation of the Division of Medicaid under Barbour, but urged legislators to vote for the agreement “to prevent” the governor from trying to run the agency without legislative authority and funding.
Barbour, who watched the news conference from the third floor, said he expected such rhetoric “from this group’s lobbyist.”
Other budgets
Most of the budgets bills to fund state agencies have gone to the governor or will, as Barbour said, “before the banks open” today, but there still were some problems late Tuesday.
It appeared an agreement would not be reached on the budget for the Department of Public Safety because Executive Director Steve Simpson opposed language supported by the House that would provide protection of overtime pay for troopers. Plus, the budgets for the Public Service Commission and the Public Utilities staff, which is independent of the Commission, were in limbo because of a disagreement between House and Senate about the number of employees the Commission could hire.
Barbour said the Department of Public Safety would remain open under an executive order from him – as would certain aspects of the Public Service Commission.
Because of the disagreement on the two budgets, the Legislature could be back in special session.
Legislation was passed that provides $38 million to help local governments hold down the cost of car tags. Efforts were made to put additional money in the fund, but it was blocked by the Senate leadership.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.