By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Legislature, after an afternoon of inactivity, acted quickly Friday night to pass legislation to fund and to reauthorize the Division of Medicaid for the new fiscal year, starting Monday.
The program, which provides health care for 644,000 elderly, disabled, poor pregnant women and poor children, was not funded and reauthorized during the 2013 regular session because of a dispute in the House over efforts by Democrats to force Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, to allow a vote on Medicaid expansion.
In the special session, Democrats got a version of that vote in both chambers, and lost almost strictly along partisan lines. After those votes, most Democrats voted to continue the program.
“The crisis has been averted,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves after the 52-member Senate had passed the legislation with one dissenting vote.
When Reeves made those comments, the Senate had adjourned the special session, leaving the House to accept the Senate plan or ensure possible chaos in the Medicaid program.
By about 1 p.m. Friday, the Senate had passed the reauthorization and funding bills that had been passed earlier in the two-day special session by the House. At that point, Reeves said he expected Gov. Phil Bryant to expand the agenda for the special session to allow legislators to pass what is known as a technical amendments bill that included taxes on health care providers to help fund the program.
But when Bryant had not called the special session by about 7 p.m., the Senate went into session where it acted quickly to amend the reauthorization bill to include the technical amendments, including the tax increases, bypassing the need for the governor to expand the special session.
The Senate then adjourned the session, leaving the House to accept its work or face Medicaid uncertainty.
“I think we have been snookered,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, on the House floor. Referring to members of the House, he said, “The Democrats have been snookered. The Republicans have been snookered. The Senate is trying an end run around the executive, and it appears they are going to succeed.”
And indeed they did. The proposal passed the House 109-4 as most of the chambers’ Democrats kept their word that if they got a vote on expansion – regardless of the outcome – they would vote to continue the existing program.
For his part, Reeves said he was not trying “to snooker” anyone, but to end the special session, which costs about $43,000 per day, as quickly as possible.
“We think we got to the best solution possible for the taxpayers of Mississippi,” said Reeves, who added that both the speaker and governor got what they wanted. They wanted to extend the program without an another automatic repealer that would mean the program would cease to exist again July 1, 2014, without additional legislative action. However, Reeves wanted a repealer on the provider tax and other aspects of the technical amendment. And all of the Republican leadership wanted to block expansion of the Medicaid program to cover those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level as is allowed under President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Bryant, speaking to reporters late Friday outside the House chamber with his shirtsleeves rolled up, said Reeves took the idea to him to complete the work without expanding the session, and he told him it was “an innovative concept” that he would support.
“The successful passage of this legislation came from the cooperation of the Republican leadership in Mississippi,” said Gunn.
Democrats, while they voted for the legislation in the end, said the special session was not a success because the state is not taking advantage of the federal program to provide health care for about 300,000 working Mississippians.
Bryant has said the state cannot afford to pay for the expansion.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said during debate Friday that, according to Bryant’s Division of Medicaid’s own calculations, the expansion will cost the state $7 million the first year for $70 million in federal funds and over a seven-year period will cost the state a cumulative $450 million while receiving $8.6 billion in federal funds.
“Mississippians are paying federal income taxes to pay for the costs of the Affordable Care Act, but we will not receive the benefit,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.