Special Session Ends; Medicaid Recipients March On Governor's Office

A Mississippi Supreme Court ruling ended the special legislative session Tuesday, and the fate of the Department of Human Services remains in doubt.

Two hours after the session ended, about 60 people upset about the upcoming loss of Medicaid services to thousands of Mississippians marched on Gov. Haley Barbour's office in the Woolfolk State Office Building.

Barbour was meeting with reporters inside a 15th floor conference room of the office suite when the protesting Medicaid recipients, health advocates and lawmakers arrived. He didn't meet with the group, which was locked out and barred from the offices by a line of Capitol police officers and Highway Patrol security guards.

"We came over here today because we wanted to look him in the eye,'' said Sarah A. Ritter of Jackson, who's losing Medicaid coverage because of budget restraints. "We weren't able to do that because he turned tail and ran.''

Barbour told reporters that even with changes starting July 1, Mississippi will still have one of the most generous Medicaid programs in the nation.

The 65,000 people are being moved off Medicaid, which is funded by state and federal dollars. Most will go directly to Medicare, paid fully by the federal government.

Barbour said he understands people's concerns, but "most people are going to have better benefits'' on Medicare.

Legislators had been meeting in special session since last month, when Republican Barbour called them back to consider bills to limit lawsuits, require voter identification and renew the Department of Human Services.

The lawsuit bill passed the House and Senate last week. The two chambers didn't agree on a voter ID plan, and that died. Also dead were several bills that would have authorized DHS to exist after the current state budget year ends June 30.

The Senate passed bills simply to renew DHS, but the House wanted to expand those bills to also ensure that people keep Medicaid benefits.

The Senate adjourned Friday. On Monday, two House members obtained a temporary restraining order from a Hinds County chancery judge to block Barbour from ending the session.

On Tuesday, a three-justice panel of the Supreme Court sided with Barbour and overturned the restraining order. That ended the session.

House Speaker Pro Tempore J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis, declared the session over shortly after the Supreme Court order was read to members.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)