Senators reverse course on protecting Medicaid

Influenced by Blunt, those who protected the program now vote in favor of cuts.
Monday, March 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:52 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — John Griesheimer was 7 years old when his mother died, his father turned to alcohol and his grandmother took custody of him. They didn’t have much.

Olive Anderson, already in her 60s, cleaned rooms at the Skylark Motel near St. Clair, and her grandson helped make the beds so they could put food on their table.

No one who had walked in his shoes would ever want to hurt the poor, Griesheimer — now age 52 and a Republican state senator from Washington — explained to his political colleagues.

That’s why Griesheimer opposed legislation last year to cut the Medicaid health care program for the poor.

But this year — just moments after recounting his personal background — Griesheimer joined most of his Republican colleagues in passing legislation making even bigger cuts to Medicaid than last year’s plan. Tens of thousands of people would lose coverage; hundreds of thousands more could have their health care services reduced.

“There were a lot of us who had heartburn over that bill (last year). I didn’t want to support it myself,” Griesheimer explained. But “the bottom line is, whether we like it or not, the state is broke — B-R-O-K-E — we’re broke! The growth in Medicaid every year has gobbled up whatever advances we have made in revenues.”

Griesheimer is part of a transformation that has occurred in the Missouri Senate, which for two years had blocked attempts by House Republicans to cut Medicaid.

Now, the Medicaid protectors have become its cutters.

Some senators, such as Griesheimer, attribute their personal reversals to a growing realization that Medicaid cuts must occur to balance the budget. Even with the proposed cuts, Medicaid would cost more than $5.5 billion next fiscal year, consuming nearly 29 percent of Missouri’s budget.

But there are two other key factors: term limits and the governor.

The 2005 legislative session is the first without veteran senators. The last of the senior senators were forced out last year by a law limiting politicians to about eight years in each chamber.

The result is the Senate has become a remodeled House.

Three-fourths of all senators are former House members — a rate not far off from the historical norm. But the difference is that the conversions are recent and include at least two new senators who led the Medicaid-cutting efforts in the House.

Freshman Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, had been the main architect for proposed Medicaid cuts during his previous eight years in the House. Freshman Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, also had pushed for cuts during his four House years, the past two as the House majority floor leader.

Purgason and another former House member who is currently a freshman senator, Larry Gene Taylor, R-Shell Knob, replaced two veteran senators — John Russell, R-Lebanon, and Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring — who had been more hesitant about making deep Medicaid cuts and more receptive to the potential need for additional tax revenues.

Legislation making the Medicaid cuts never reached a Senate vote in previous years, even though Democratic Gov. Bob Holden had proposed some of the reductions.

This year, just two of the 22 Republican senators joined the 10 Democrats in opposing the cuts. And that’s partly because of the influence of new Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.

Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis, credits Blunt’s stronger determination to make the Medicaid cuts as part of the reason he switched from a Medicaid protector to cutter. He also cited a provision in this year’s bill creating a committee to recommend a top-to-bottom overhaul of the program. And like Griesheimer, Dolan said he now sees more of a need for the cuts.

Democrats contend Blunt is the largest cause for the Senate’s reversal. What Dolan describes as gubernatorial leadership, Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, derides as dictatorial direction.

The Senate has historically been known to be less partisan than the House, with individual senators more often breaking from their party’s leadership. But Callahan compared the current Republican-led Senate to a circus animal.

“We have become a performing seal for the executive branch, waiting for fish to come out of the bucket,” said Callahan, clapping his hands as though they were a seal’s flippers.

Republican senators weren’t too amused.

“It’s hard for me to vote for it,” Griesheimer explained about the Medicaid cuts, but “we have to get this under control.”

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