Medicaid alternative gets GOP rebuff

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Legislative Democrats said they are ready to meet with the Republican leadership, including Gov. Phil Bryant, to discuss their plan to use federal money to allow uninsured working Mississippians to obtain private health insurance.
House Democrats, flanked by some of their Senate colleagues, unveiled their plan Wednesday during a news conference at the state Capitol.
Gov. Phil Bryant’s spokesman and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves indicated no interest in considering the plan.
Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said the Democratic legislators have met with federal officials who told them their plan is “on the right track,” though he stressed federal officials would not OK any plan until it is approved by the Legislature and submitted for official review.
The federal Affordable Care Act gives states the option to expand Medicaid to cover those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level or about $15,000 annually. Bryant and the Republican leadership of the Legislature are blocking the expansion, saying the state cannot afford it even if the federal government pays the bulk of the costs.
Johnson said, “Our first inclination is to try to get Medicaid expanded. The political reality is that will not happen.”
Johnson said he believes the plan offered Wednesday “is something Republicans and Democrat can agree.”
Instead of an estimated 300,000 primarily working poor Mississippians being enrolled in the federal-state health care program, under the plan offered Wednesday they would be able to go to an exchange to obtain a private health care plan. The money that the federal government had earmarked to pay for the Medicaid expansion would instead pay for the private health care coverage.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said, “We are looking forward to sitting down with the governor, the House and Senate leadership to iron out the specifics of the plan.”
But whether that will happens remains to be seen.
Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said, “As Gov. Bryant has said before, he remains opposed to expanding Obamacare … While we are unfamiliar with the details of what the House Democrats have proposed, it appears that their plan is very similar to what Arkansas has proposed – a repackaged expansion of Medicaid.”
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves also did not offer an indication of a compromise.
“Clearly, President Obama is working with Mississippi Democrats in an attempt to force Obamacare on Mississippians,” Reeves said.
Under the proposal, the federal government would pay 100 percent of the costs for the first three years, starting in January. After those first three years, there would be costs to the state, topping out at 10 percent in 2020, though, there might be some additional administrative costs.
To make the Democrats’ plan work, the state would have to develop an exchange where people could go to garner private health insurance that presumably would be offered at a less expensive rate.
The Democrats propose that Republican state Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney would administer the exchange.
In a statement, Chaney said, “We stand committed to work with legislators, the leadership and the governor’s office to further the well-being of the people of Mississippi.”
The fight over whether to expand Medicaid resulted in the 2013 session ending without the current Medicaid program being funded or re-authorized for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. Democrats want a debate and vote on health care expansion to occur if Bryant calls a special session to deal with the current program.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who attended the news conference held by House Democrats, said that under the federal law funds are reduced that compensate health care providers for treating the uninsured under the assumption that more people would have insurance thanks to the expansion.
If Mississippi rejects the expansion, he said it will cost the state more than $1 million per day, starting Jan. 1.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com