JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Wednesday that his administration has identified some additional federal money that could help avoid cuts to a program that provides health care benefits to the blind.
Nixon's budget director said the state now expects to receive $18 million more in federal Medicaid money than anticipated when the governor outlined a budget in January. Nixon is recommending that $17.75 million of that be used to help avert the blind benefit cuts that were included in a budget plan passed last week by the House.
"This is the right thing to do, and I look forward to working with the Senate to fully restore this critical program," Nixon said in a statement.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is to begin hearings Monday on the $24 billion budget plan passed by the House for the 2013 fiscal year.
The House plan would eliminate a $30 million program that provides health care to 2,858 blind residents who earn at least $9,060 a year, which is too much to qualify for the state's traditional Medicaid health care program for the poor. Instead, the House budget provides $6 million for a new, slimmed-down blind aid program. House Republicans say the cuts would bring the blind benefits more in line with those available to other residents with disabilities and are necessary to avoid making a cut that Nixon had proposed to public colleges and universities.
House Majority Leader Tim Jones called Nixon's proposed budget additions "political maneuvering" in reaction to the House.
"We just passed the budget out last week. It would have helpful to have that information in our possession," Jones, R-Eureka, said.
In addition to the blind aid program, Nixon recommended that $225,000 from the Medicaid funds be used for an analysis of Missouri's military bases to help guard against potential reductions if the federal government launches a new round of base closures and realignments.
The governor also formally requested that lawmakers add to the budget $50 million from a potential federal grant to improve the state's Medicaid computer systems. House Republicans had refused to include the money in the budget, partly because some lawmakers feared it could be used to lay the groundwork to implement a health insurance exchange under the new federal health care law.
Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, said Wednesday that there is no intent to use the money to enable a health insurance exchange to be set up. Rather, she said the money would update a severely outdated system so that Medicaid recipients can file information online and state workers can do a better job of fighting Medicaid fraud.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he supports inserting the federal Medicaid grant into the state budget. Schaefer said he needs to look over the recommendation for an analysis of military bases and made no commitment when he met with the governor Wednesday on whether he would restore the House cut to the blind benefits.
He said the Senate first must decide whether it wants to pass other measures to enhance state revenues, such as a tax amnesty program that would generate money by waiving interest and penalties for delinquent taxpayers who finally pay up. If that bill does not pass, then more budget cuts will be necessary, he said.
"It's hard for me to make solid commitments on certain things until I have an overall idea of how this budget is going to work out," Schaefer said.
State Rep. Sara Lampe, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said she was pleased that Nixon's administration identified some additional federal Medicaid money.
"I am thrilled it's going to services for those who are blind, and I am glad it's at the beginning of the budget process for the Senate because hopefully they'll be able to incorporate that," Lampe, of Springfield, said.