Lawmakers mull Medicaid funding

Published 11:36 pm Friday, June 18, 2010

Staff Writer

Gov. Beverly Perdue has left no doubt about the fact that she wants House and Senate budget-writers to avoid relying on $500 million in federal Medicaid money that Congress might not send home to the state.
And a congressional source, speaking on background, cast doubt on the future of that funding, saying that Democrats in the U.S. Senate are having a difficult time getting the 60 votes they need to end debate and approve the extension of the extra Medicaid cash.
Perdue, whose initial spending-plan proposal relied on the added $500 million, now urges caution as lawmakers work to reconcile competing budget blueprints and close a funding gap that has plagued state leaders in their fiscal negotiations this spring.
“Her position remains that North Carolina needs that (extended) money to fully protect as many services as we can,” said Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Perdue.
The budget has been trimmed dramatically in the past couple of years, Pearson indicated.
“Finding another half-billion, while not impossible, would certainly be challenging,” she said.
Asked how House budget-writers are responding to the governor’s wishes about going back to the drawing board on the $500 million, Bill Holmes, spokesman for House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said, “They’re very in tune with the governor.”
Holmes added, “I think the House and the Senate budget-writers are … coming up with contingency plans to deal with cuts if needed.”
The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners reports that more than 30 states have included the extension of federal Medicaid reimbursements — extra money to assist states through the economic crisis — in their budgets for the coming fiscal year, according to Rebecca Troutman, intergovernmental relations director with the NCACC.
Medicaid, the government program that covers some of the costs of medical care for the poor, is the vessel the federal government has used to distribute pots of stimulus funds to the states in a fair and equitable way, shared Adam Searing, project coordinator for the N.C. Justice Center’s Health Access Coalition.
One of the requirements of the stimulus packages was that states maintain eligibility levels for Medicaid, said Searing, whose organization advocates for working families.
“I wouldn’t see that there would be some disproportionate effects on Medicaid because we lost that money,” he said. “The effects would be across the whole state budget.”
Troutman, whose employer offers lobbying and support services to all 100 North Carolina counties, said a U.S. Senate attempt to insert the Medicaid-funding extension into federal legislation failed a couple of days ago.
She said she understands there will be another attempt to put the money back into the funding stream.
“What was once thought a certainty is now becoming more and more uncertain,” Troutman observed.
Another congressional source, Jack Pfeiffer, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said, “It is changing minute by minute here.”
Perdue has personally lobbied members of the state’s congressional delegation in an effort to secure the funding, Pearson related.
As part of that effort, the governor spoke with senior-level officials at the White House, met with Hagan and spoke by telephone with U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Pearson said.
“She has aggressively made our position known,” the spokeswoman pointed out.
Yet, in a year when Congress is under pressure to scale back deficit spending, it is unclear — or it was unclear Thursday — whether the majority will have the will to bow to the states’ lobby on this issue.
This challenge comes at a time when legislators in the Old North State are wrestling with deep cuts in key areas like education while trying to avoid raising income taxes.
“If there’s a call for action here, it’s for citizens to call their congressional delegation and talk to them about what the money means for citizens in North Carolina,” Pearson said.