Lawmakers convene today amid uncertainty

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi Legislature will convene in special session at 10 a.m. today to take up funding and reauthorizing the Division of Medicaid for the new fiscal year, which begins Monday.
The question is whether legislators also will take up a proposal to expand Medicaid to cover those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 annually for an individual, as is allowed by federal law.
A rift between Democrats in the House, trying to force a vote on the issue of expansion, and the Republican leadership, trying to block such a vote, resulted in the program not being funded or reauthorized during the regular 2013 session.
In today’s special session, the Republican leadership, particularly Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton and Gov. Phil Bryant, will continue to try to block an expansion vote.
But Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said, “We’re going to talk about Medicaid, all facets of it, including of the expansion.”
Whether there will be a vote on expansion remains to be seen. Bryant’s proclamation, establishing the agenda for the special session, is narrowly crafted to include only funding the agency and reauthorizing it with an executive director.
It is not clear whether, under the Senate rules, that would prevent a member from offering an amendment to expand the program to cover an additional 300,000 Mississippians, primarily the working poor.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, has refused to speculate on what amendments might be proper in the special session.
But at some point during the special session, Bryant is expected to consider expanding the call or the legislative leadership will have to accept amendments to address other aspects of Medicaid. For instance, taxes on health care providers, such as hospitals and nursing homes, totaling about $390 million, will be repealed on Monday unless reauthorized in the special session.
To pass those taxes will take a three-fifths vote. The super majority needed to pass those issues was a key part of the leverage the Democratic minority had in the regular session to try to force a vote on expansion.
Gwen Combs, vice president for policy for the Mississippi Hospital Association, said she does not believe under federal law those taxes can be paid voluntarily by the health care providers unless renewed by the Legislature.
Without those taxes, there will be a big hole in the Medicaid budget.
When asked whether the governor would expand the call to consider those taxes, Mick Bullock, a spokesman for Bryant, said, “The governor’s priority is the two items that are listed in the call, fund and reauthorize the Division of Medicaid.”
Meanwhile, a new Senate Conservative Coalition, consisting of 11 members who for the most part are not part of Reeves’ inner circle, announced its formation this week. The group said it opposes Medicaid expansion, but wants to work in the coming months “to reduce the program’s size, scope and costs.”
Medicaid provides health care coverage to about 644,000 Mississippians, who are disabled, elderly and poor pregnant women and poor children.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com