Senate leaders balk at Medicaid reauthorization

JACKSON – Medicaid remains a major sticking point with House and Senate negotiators trying to set a budget to fund state government.
On Tuesday, the negotiators could not agree on whether to re-authorize Medicaid, the agency that provides health care for more than 600,000 elderly, disabled and poor pregnant women and children.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, the lead House negotiator, made the proposal that the two sides re-authorize the agency or it would cease to exist on July 1.
House negotiators said after Tuesday’s meeting that re-authorizing Medicaid should be an easy first step that everyone should be able to agree on.
The lead Senate negotiator, Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, rejected the proposal.
“My focus is on getting a budget,” Nunnelee said, adding that re-authorizing Medicaid is a public health issue, not a budget issue.
In January, the House approved legislation to re-authorize Medicaid. After passing the House, the bill was approved by the Senate Public Health Committee and then referred to the Appropriations Committee, where Nunnelee killed it without allowing his committee to vote on it.
On Tuesday, Nunnelee said he believes the Division of Medicaid will continue to operate even without re-authorization by the Legislature. House negotiators asked for an opinion from Attorney General Jim Hood’s office on the issue. When a House staff attorney tried to summarize a draft of the opinion, Nunnelee walked out of the meeting.
He said he would wait until he received an official copy of the opinion, which is pending.
The draft indicated that Gov. Haley Barbour might be able to run certain aspects of the program, but whether his office would be able to provide the full array of services is questionable.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, one of the House negotiators, say the refusal to re-authorize Medicaid is part of Nunnelee’s efforts to force the House to agree to a $90 million tax increase on hospitals.
“This is a silly argument to try to blackmail us to get $90 millions and it is not going to happen,” Brown said.
Nunnelee said later he is willing to build a budget without the tax.
The Legislature is in recess until later this month to give negotiators time to craft an agreement to fund state government, starting July 1.
While they made little progress Tuesday, they did agree to continue to meet this week.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio