House leadership’s Medicaid action unexpected

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Nobody gave it a second thought Thursday when House Rules Chair Mark Formby, R-Picayune, announced his committee would meet after the chamber adjourned for the day.
After all, the Rules Committee meets nearly every day to pass out the literally hundreds of commendatory resolutions legislators pass each year to honor constituents’ accomplishments – whether it be winning a state soccer championship or reaching a significant milestone, such as a 100th birthday.
Some of the Democratic members of the committee did not attend the meeting nor did any member of the press.
But what the Rules Committee took up Thursday was not a commendatory resolution. Its actions were a bit unprecedented.
The Rules Committee took up and killed Senate legislation that reauthorizes the Division of Medicaid after June 30. Normally legislation dealing with Medicaid would be referred by the speaker to the Medicaid Committee. But in this case, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, referred the legislation to the Republican-controlled Rules Committee.
Gunn was straightforward on why he neglected precedent. He wanted the Senate legislation killed quickly to try to force the House to pass its own Medicaid reauthorization bill.
There is one distinct difference in the House and Senate bills. The Senate Medicaid reauthorization bill has the code section that could be amended by Democrats on the House floor to expand Medicaid as part of new federal law to cover people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level or about $15,000 per year.
The House bill does not include that language so it could not be amended to expand Medicaid.
The House had until March 13 to pass or reject the Senate bill. The House had to act on its own bill by Friday.
So on Thursday, Gunn sent the House bill to the Rules Committee to kill it so that the only vehicle to reauthorize a federal-state program that provides care to about 640,000 disabled, elderly, poor pregnant women and children was the House bill.
Gov. Phil Bryant, who adamantly opposes the expansion of Medicaid, praised Gunn for “his bold move … and act of strong leadership.”
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said the speaker’s actions were “legal,” but not right.
House Democratic Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said, “Republicans are again proving that they are not interested in an open and honest discussion on Medicaid. If they were, they would allow Mississippians the benefit of considering this important issue with all options on the table.”
Gunn said the debate would have been lengthy and divisive.
He said, “My job is to protect the House … as best I can” from such debate.
Plus, in the end, he said the debate would be fruitless for Democrats since Republicans who oppose expansion have a majority in the chamber.
“The House was faced with what would have been a long and divisive debate on the issue of expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, which would have served no purpose and would have ended with the bill being defeated,” Gunn said.
But Democrats had enough votes to block the House reauthorization bill that required a three-fifths majority to pass. The result is that there is currently no bill alive in the Legislature to reauthorize the agency.
To revive a bill would take a two-thirds majority of both chambers. Another option would be for the governor to call a special session and start over on the issue.
A third option, some believe, is for the governor to run the agency through executive order. Some believe the Republican majorities in both chambers could appropriate funds to his office to run Medicaid.
But that action would be fraught with legal questions. And a substantial portion of the state Medicaid funds are derived from health care provider taxes that will die – along with the reauthorization of the agency – on June 30. It would take a super majority to revive those taxes.
Holland said there is a long way to go in the legislative process before the health care agency is repealed.
“Be assured one way or another we will have a Medicaid program by July 1, 2013,” he said.
Getting there may be contentious, divisive and highly partisan.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com