LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers endorsed Gov. Mike Beebe's proposed $114.3 million increase in Medicaid funding Thursday with assurances that the additional funding would shore up existing programs, not start new ones.
LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers endorsed Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposed $114.3 million increase in Medicaid funding Thursday with assurances that the additional funding would shore up existing programs, not start new ones.
“That money really is just to keep our existing Medicaid program in play,” John Selig, director of the state Department of Human Services, told members of the Joint Budget Committee.
The panel is reviewing major state agency budgets in advance of the Legislature’s fiscal session, which convenes Feb. 13.
Selig told lawmakers that DHS officials originally thought the agency would need much more than the current request for the fiscal year that begins July. The agency scaled back projections for next year because fewer people have become eligible for Medicaid but the program still faces a $250 million shortfall in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, he said.
The additional Medicaid funding is part of the $4.7 billion balanced budget proposal the Beebe administration presented to lawmakers this week. Medicaid would get the bulk of $163 million in new funding under the proposal, which also calls for a $2.9 million increase in the DHS budget for the State Hospital and a $56.6 million increase in funding for public education.
The budget committee voted to recommend the DHS budget after members questioned Selig and new state Medicaid Director Andy Allison for more than three hours.
“We’re talking about some big (Medicaid) numbers here, $114 million and $250 million down the road,” said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who also quizzed DHS officials about much smaller funding requests as well, including $20,000 for a Miss Senior pageant.
Selig defended the request, saying such events help keep senior citizens active.
“That pageant is one of many examples, just like the Senior Olympics, that help … people stay active and involved in the community,” he said, adding that often such programs help postpone for many people the transition from independent living to life in a facility.
Rep. Lori Benedict, R-Salem, told Selig that she recently talked with residents at a senior adult center in her community who unanimously panned the Miss Senior Pageant as necessary and said the money for it would be better spent on the Meals-on-Wheels program. Selig said it would be up to the Legislature to make such a change.
Also Thursday, the budget committee did an about-face on the state Department of Community Correction’s budget and endorsed it after rescinding their approval a day earlier for lopping $3 million from the Tobacco Settlement Commission budget to fund drug courts. DCC administers the drug court program.
With Thursday’s vote, the DCC budget now can be drafted for the fiscal session.
The $3 million transfer of tobacco settlement money would have funded the drug court program for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. The panel also nixed its approval Wednesday for adding two drug courts, at a cost of about $392,000, to the 41 now operating in the state.
Committee members held up consideration of the DCC budget Wednesday after having second thoughts about drug court funding. State Health Director Paul Halverson told the committee Thursday he did not think the fund transfer would be a good idea.
“I can just tell you that if you look at the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations for per capital spending in tobacco prevention and cessation … we are at less than half of the recommended amount of spending that evidence suggests is appropriate to reduce the harm due to tobacco,” Halverson said. “If you look at other states that have continued to spend money to address this issue, they’ve seen dramatic reductions, and so anything that reduces the attention that this state places on the use and cessation of tobacco is harmful to the health of the people,” he said.
After the meeting, Sen. Bill Pritchard, R-Elkins, who proposed the transfer of Tobacco Settlement Commission funds for drug courts, said he would continue to look for another source of money for the system and would present his proposal during the fiscal session next month.