Blunt team won’t rule out health care cuts

A spokesman says it’s too early to tell whether reductions will be necessary.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:23 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A spokesman for Gov.-elect Matt Blunt’s transition team said he cannot rule out the possibility of a reduction in Missouri’s health care coverage at a time when another state is dissolving its expanded Medicaid program.

Many Tennessee residents are fretting over the dissolution of their Medicaid program — a cut that will leave 430,000 poor and disabled Tennesseans without health care.

“We’ve just gotten started on the process, and the budget hasn’t even been put together,” said Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson. “That’s something that’s going to be developed as days go by.”

While there’s no sign a cut as large as Tennessee’s is in the works, a push to slim down the state’s Medicaid program should come as no surprise now that Republicans control the governor’s office and have strengthened their grip on both chambers of the General Assembly.

During Missouri’s last legislative session, House Republicans fought to reduce the number of people entitled to receive Medicaid benefits, which provide health-care coverage for low-income people. After initially proposing a cut that would have saved millions of dollars by dropping thousands of people from Medicaid rolls, Republicans faced strong resistance from Democratic legislators and Gov. Bob Holden, as well as a few senators from their own party.

Eventually, they settled for a much more modest reduction that cut 324 adults from the program, saving the state $150,000.

Throughout his campaign, Blunt said he did not support efforts to scale back eligibility for Medicaid. He said he would prefer to save money by rooting out waste and fraud in the existing program.

Rep. Carl Bearden, a St. Charles Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, was a proponent of the eligibility cuts.

“I think that the waste, fraud and abuse is a good first step,” Bearden said. “My long-term opinion, beyond this year, is that at some point in time you wil have to address eligibility in some fashion. We’ll take it a step at a time, as long as we have an agenda and action that is moving toward a solution.”

Bearden said that while he might not see eye to eye with Blunt on the necessity of a rollback, he’s eager to get to work with the new governor.

“I think we have a willing partner,” he said. “The important part is that we have someone we can have a discussion with.”

The Missouri Medicaid Program was established by the General Assembly in 1967. In the past 30 years, its budget has grown from $81 million to $4.4 billion, making it one of the fastest-growing segments of the state’s budget.

During the 1990s, Missouri legislators used the extra tax revenue generated by the economic boom to increase the number of people who qualified for Medicaid. In January 1993, 510,788 Missourians were on Medicaid. According to government records, that number today stands at more than 980,000.

Don Hall, a delegation chairman in the Silver Haired Legislature, an elected body of senior citizens that works to promote issues important to older people, said he doesn’t think Tennessee’s cutback has Missouri seniors worried. Still, he said, they are uncertain about what to expect from state government in the next session.

“Where they’re going to go, I can’t tell,” Hall said.

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