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Unexpected reprieve for advocates

4/9/2009 © Health News Florida
Advocates for the poor and disabled find themselves in an unaccustomed position when it comes to Medicaid this year, News Service of Florida reports, by getting what they wanted without having to fight a protracted battle in Tallahassee.

Both the House and Senate have included funding for Medically Needy and the Aging and Disabled (MEDS AD) waiver programs. Included in this funding was the acceptance of federal Medicaid stimulus money. This funding  can't be removed, lest the stimulus money be forfeited, News Service reports.

Medicaid advocates, in the session's final weeks, typically must fight cuts all the way to the bitter end of the session. But the stimulus package comes with a provision: States that use the money must continue state spending on certain Medicaid programs that might otherwise have been slashed. News Service reports tens of thousands of state residents stand to benefit.

“The fact that both House and Senate have now agreed to use the stimulus money means that Medicaid eligibility can’t be tightened until 2011,” Greg Mellowe, policy director of the health advocacy group Florida CHAIN, told the News Service. “Rejecting the stimulus funds would have shredded the Medicaid safety net.”

Typically lawmakers had used non-recurring money to pay for some of those waiver programs, slating them to sunset after the budget year. But now, those programs must be continued because of requirements in the stimulus bill. This will help preserve such services as dentures and hearing aids, which have been marked for elimination in years past, Merrell told News Service, as both budgets avoided most cuts.

Mellowe said the total Medicaid budget already was set for an increase in Fiscal Year 2009-10 because of recession-driven enrollment inreases. Funding for additional recipients will also come through the stimulus package, he said.

Advocates, naturally, are delighted. Karen Woodall, outreach and education coordinator of the Florida Center for Economic and Fiscal Policy, told News Service the good news was "temporary but critical."

“Without that stimulus money and with the attitude of most House members about not raising additional revenue, they would have had to decimate the Medicaid program areas,” she told News Service.

Linda Merrell, a longtime advocate for health care for the disadvantaged, said advocates should use the respite as an opportunity to examine methods to keep more Floridians from losing their coverage.

--News Service of Florida covers the Capitol. It's usually subscription-only but this month is offering a free trial.