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          Front Page


Wednesday, February 19, 2003

'Scalpel' Whittles Medicaid Expenses

By Deborah Baker
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE The Senate on Tuesday endorsed a package of changes aimed at reining in Medicaid costs, but critics said it isn't enough.
    The proposed changes to the program that provides health care to 390,000 poor, young or disabled New Mexicans were recommended by a legislative study panel.
    The task force used "a careful scalpel instead of a chain saw" to come up with savings estimated at between $8.5 million and $22.5 million annually, said Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, its chairwoman.
    "It didn't go as far as a lot of people wanted it to go, in terms of cutting eligibility and benefits," Feldman acknowledged.
    The legislation passed on a vote of 33-8 and went to the House.
    The proposals include setting up a prescription drug purchasing cooperative to combine the buying power of Medicaid with other programs for retirees, teachers, and the health and corrections departments, for example to get drugs at lower costs.
    It would also set up a uniform, preferred drug list to be used by all Medicaid programs and services in an effort to cut drug costs.
    A program to detect fraud and abuse and recover the money is on the list of two dozen changes, as is a requirement for co-payment on emergency room services unless a patient is admitted.
    "Ultimately, what this will do if it's enacted, is trash our emergency rooms," said Sen. Allen Hurt, R-Waterflow, a physician who voted against the bill. "Some of them will go down the tubes because of this."
    Other opponents said the only way to get a handle on rising Medicaid costs is to cut benefits and eligibility.
    "We're going to see Medicaid pitted against education ... because the money isn't there," warned Sen. Joseph Carraro, R-Albuquerque.
    "We need to come up with a solution to these problems, and not put these Band-Aid approaches on them."
    In the last decade, Medicaid spending in New Mexico has more than tripled while enrollment has more than doubled.
    The state is spending about $360 million in state revenue this year on the program, and Gov. Bill Richardson's administration says it needs an extra $100 million to cover both shortfalls in the past and current fiscal years and cost increases next year.
    "We are not going to solve the problem in one year, or with one bill," Feldman said. "We have laid the groundwork for some very lasting reforms."