House Pases Bill To Fund Medicaid

The House voted 95-21 Friday to approve a bill aimed at repairing Mississippi's ailing Medicaid program.

"We believe in the Medicaid program from the bottom of our feet to the top of our heads,'' Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said during a one-hour debate. "We refuse to let this program go into degradation and despair.''

The bill now moves to the Senate.

It proposes a number of changes in the program, including requiring patients to pay more out of pocket for prescriptions. Doctors, nursing homes and other providers would see their fees from the state cut by 5 percent.

It would also tap a tobacco trust fund this year and next.

House Public Health and Welfare Chairman Bobby Moody, who helped create the trust fund in 1999 with winnings from Mississippi's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, said he hates to touch the fund but Medicaid is in a crisis. Moody, D-Louisville, said it's difficult to make changes in Medicaid but the changes are needed to save the program that helps 22 percent of the state's population.

Medicaid is a federal-state program that provides health coverage for the needy, aged, blind and disabled.

"There's not a thing in this piece of legislation I'm proud of,'' Moody said Friday.

Medicaid is running a $148 million deficit in the budget year ending June 30, a problem created by rising enrollment and skyrocketing costs for prescriptions. Officials warn the program could be broke by the end of this month.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove says lawmakers are only offering a short-term solution to Medicaid budget problems.

"This is just a Band-Aid approach with no look at the big picture of health care,'' Musgrove said in an interview Thursday.

Musgrove proposed covering the deficit by moving $48 million from a rural roads program, then borrowing money to build roads. He also said the state could reap $100 million by requiring large businesses to submit sales tax collections weekly instead of monthly.

Tax Commission Chairman Ed Buelow told lawmakers this week that faster sales tax collections would bring $50 million at most.

The bill that cleared the House Friday would cover about $120 million of the shortfall, and lawmakers say they're thinking of ways to plug the rest of the hole.

People on the program would have to pay more for prescriptions - $3 per refill instead of the $1 they pay now. A family's prescription expenses would be capped at $6 a month, no matter how many prescriptions the family members receive.

Several other changes would be made, including requiring prescriptions to be filled with generic rather than brand-name drugs when possible. Many private health insurance plans already require this.

Moody said proposed changes would save $50 million to $60 million a year.

Officials say Medicaid would save only a few million dollars before this budget year ends. Moody said $108 million would be taken this budget year from the tobacco trust fund. The full $144 million payment that's due to the fund in December would be used for Medicaid. That would boost the program's budget in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Tobacco companies pay Mississippi millions of dollars a year, depending on their sales. The payments go into a trust fund and the fund's earnings are reserved for health care. The bill would require the trust fund to be repaid in years the state has at least 5 percent budget growth.

Rep. Jim Ellington, R-Jackson, tried unsuccessfully Friday to amend the Medicaid bill to make the state repay the trust fund more quickly.