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Saturday, March 8, 2003

Medicaid Changes Move Ahead

By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE Legislators see smooth sailing for bills that would change how Medicaid operates but aren't sure about funding measures they proposed.
    Medicaid program changes that proponents say would cut Medicaid spending by up to $22.5 million were introduced on behalf of the Medicaid Reform Committee, which met for nine months in 2002 to find ways to control the cost of providing health care to low-income children and adults.
    The House version of the legislation (HB 384) was unanimously passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday and was sent to the Senate. A similar bill, SB 338, passed the Senate and is awaiting committee hearings in the House.
    Other legislation requiring the State Human Services Department to study a variety of ways that Medicaid might be improved is also moving through the legislature with relative ease.
    "We don't see any opposition, and the money for the studies has been included in the budget," said Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who chaired the reform committee along with Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo.
    A bill to raise alcohol taxes to help pay for Medicaid (SB 155) died in the Senate Finance Committee. Bills that would provide tax credits to purchasers of long-term care insurance (HB 359 and SB 337) don't seem likely to pass this year, said House Majority Leader Danice Picraux, D-Albuquerque.
    Other bills designed to fund Medicaid with new cigarette taxes and money paid to the state by tobacco companies have been caught up in budgetary politics.
    The reform committee wanted $20 million of the approximately $40 million paid annually from the tobacco settlement to be dedicated to Medicaid in the next fiscal year (SB 324). That bill stalled in the Senate Finance Committee when Gov. Bill Richardson said he wanted more tobacco settlement money moved into the general fund.
    Feldman and Picraux agree that some cigarette tax increase will likely pass the Legislature, though not necessarily the measure the reform committee introduced (SB 324).
    The governor's already approved personal income tax cuts, designed to stimulate job growth, have opened a deficit, Feldman said.
    "While we're waiting for the jobs to show up, we need some spare change to pay for the ever-rising health care costs that are often caused by tobacco and alcohol use," she said.
    Picraux said legislators have talked about tax increases in the range of 50- to 70-cents a pack to pay for hospital construction, cancer treatment and prevention programs and Medicaid.
    Different bills that could generate about $22 million in new federal money passed both the House and Senate (HB 130 and SB 331). Each chamber's bill is awaiting action in the other chamber.
    The bills would get federal matching money for payments made to Medicaid managed care operators.