Lawmakers keep Medicaid alive — and go home

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers adjourned their two-day special session late Friday after passing bills to keep Medicaid alive and funded for the new fiscal year that starts Monday.

Republicans hold the majority in the House and Senate, and they blocked Democrats’ efforts to extend Medicaid to another 300,000 low-income people — additional coverage that is an option under the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed in 2010

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant praised legislators for their work, saying that the renewal of Medicaid was “a victory for the vulnerable.” He also said he was happy that he and lawmakers “stopped expansion of Obamacare,” which he considers expensive and risky.

“We got accomplished what we wanted,” Bryant said outside the House chamber, his shirt sleeves rolled up after watching debate.

Medicaid is a government health insurance program for the needy and it already covers more than 644,000 of the nearly 3 million residents of Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation.

House Bill 1 keeps Medicaid alive, and Bryant said he is signing it Saturday. It also renews a hospital tax that helps pay for the program.

House Bill 2 is the budget for the program. Bryant signed it Friday night.

Lawmakers ended up in special session because they finished their three-month regular session in early April without funding Medicaid or passing a bill to keep it alive beyond June 30, the end of the current budget year. They spent much of the regular session in a partisan squabble over expansion.

Only a governor can call a special session and he controls the agenda. Much of the session was taken up with bursts of work in one chamber or the other, followed by long hours of waiting and uncertainty.

Lawmakers waited several hours Friday for Bryant to add the hospital tax to the session’s agenda. They had expected to handle the hospital tax in a separate bill. Finally, without waiting for Bryant any longer, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves gaveled the Senate to order after 7 p.m. and quickly pulled up the reauthorization bill the chamber had passed hours earlier, House Bill 1. Senators revised the bill to add the hospital tax.

Then, just as quickly, the Senate ended its part of the special session. That rapid series of events forced the House to accept the Senate’s Medicaid plan to keep the program from going out of business at midnight Sunday into Monday.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, told the House that the Senate pulled “a political stunt” to make an end run around the governor and the House. “I think we’ve been snookered,” Brown said.

House Democratic leader Bobby Moak, of Bogue Chitto, also complained: “I sort of feel like this chamber has been bamboozled. I understand that because I’ve been a part of bamboozling the other chamber a lot.”

Bryant, however, said Reeves had not made an end-run around him or House Speaker Philip Gunn.

“That’s just ridiculous,” Bryant told reporters. “We all worked together on this stuff.”

House Bill 1 includes a repealer on parts of the Medicaid law — a provision that gives lawmakers leverage as they review how the agency is operating. That means lawmakers could have big debates about Medicaid in 2014.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said that over seven years, Mississippi could spend $455 million for Medicaid expansion and receive $8.6 billion from the federal government.

“Folks, this is a good investment,” Blount said. “This is a good deal for the state of Mississippi.”

Several Republicans said they were skeptical that the federal government would follow through with promises of funding. Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said the 2010 federal law, known as the Affordable Care Act, is complicated and could be a disaster for states that opt to expand Medicaid.

“I don’t want Mississippi to be a part of that train wreck,” Brown said Friday. “Let’s look at it after the train wreck happens.”

Federal law says that starting next January, states can extend coverage to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 for one person. In Mississippi now, the income cutoff is about $5,500, but many able-bodied adults below that income threshold still don’t qualify.

The federal government would pay 100 percent of medical expenses for the newly qualified Medicaid enrollees from 2014 to 2017. The federal share would be reduced to 90 percent by 2020, with each state paying the balance. Bryant has said he doesn’t trust Congress to fulfill its funding promises and he doesn’t want state government to be left with large obligations it can’t afford.

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