Attorney General Goes To Court To Keep Human Services Agency Open

Attorney General Jim Hood sought a court order Wednesday night to keep the Department of Human Services alive when the new state budget year starts Thursday.

Gov. Haley Barbour also issued an executive order to keep DHS open, although Hood said the governor's order carries no legal weight. Hood said weeks ago that the governor can't run DHS by executive order.

"You can be assured I'm not going to let 650,000 needy, vulnerable people get cut off at Human Services,'' Barbour said.

The moves came after legislators met in a brief special session and adjourned without agreeing on a bill to reauthorize DHS, which handles everything from food stamps to child support for thousands of Mississippians.

DHS executive director Don Taylor had said this week his agency would send termination letters to 649,329 clients if lawmakers didn't vote to keep the agency alive.

Taylor had said DHS' 3,400 employees shouldn't report to work. But, Hood said a chancery court order could keep the agency running indefinitely, and Barbour said DHS employees should go to work as usual.

DHS handles a host of social services for the poor, including distribution of foster-care payments. It also runs training schools for juveniles and has services for the elderly, including in-home meal delivery.

State agencies must be renewed periodically by legislators.

During a special session that lasted less than four hours Wednesday, the House voted 92-20 for a bill to reauthorize DHS and to undo plans approved earlier this year to cut 65,000 people from Medicaid.

The Senate voted 48-0 for a bill that would only keep DHS running. But because both chambers never agreed on a single bill, nothing was sent to Barbour.

Only a governor can call a special session and set its agenda. Republican Barbour called lawmakers to Jackson only to deal with DHS, but many lawmakers said they wanted to reconsider the Medicaid cuts they passed at Barbour's request.

Medicaid spending has grown rapidly in the past five years, and Barbour has said the state can save money by making cuts.

Charles Araujo of Jackson, a public schools social worker who relies on DHS to help his clients, said thousands of people will suffer if the agency goes out of business, even temporarily.

"Not having DHS reauthorized is frightening to me,'' Araujo said. "I can't even conceive of it.''

The Senate adjourned Wednesday after President Pro Tempore Travis Little, R-Corinth, said Barbour had told him Medicaid would not be added to the session agenda.

Twenty-one senators tried to add Medicaid to the Senate bill, but Little wouldn't allow it.

About 65,000 of Medicaid's 720,00 clients originally were set to be removed from the program Thursday, but Barbour says he'll delay the changes until Sept. 15. Many lawmakers want to put all 65,000 people back on the program.

More than 100 legislators, Medicaid recipients and health advocates rallied in the Capitol rotunda before the session started, calling for elimination of the Medicaid cuts.

"We feel your suffering. We feel your pain,'' House Public Health Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, told those scheduled to lose coverage.

Several of Barbour's staff members watched the rally from a nearby balcony, but neither they nor the governor spoke to the crowd.

Medicaid executive director Warren Jones set up a table near the rally to help people get information about making the transition from Medicaid to Medicare.

Barbour has said Mississippi needs to control costs of the Medicaid program, which have grown significantly since 1999. Medicaid is funded by state and federal dollars.

Most of those set to lose Medicaid coverage are also on the federal Medicare program, but many patients worry they won't have enough prescription-drug coverage.

Barbour says people can get $600 prescription credits from Medicare this year and next and can apply for free or deeply discounted drugs from pharmaceutical companies.

Former Gov. Bill Allain, a Democrat, told the crowd at the pre-session rally that the Medicaid cuts are "the cruelest thing that has ever happened in Mississippi.''

The bills are House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2001.

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