Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Playing politics with money

Rep. Ron Stephens, a Greenville Republican, repeatedly compared the state’s budget to a sinking ship and a half loaf of bread Wednesday. During a House committee meeting, he raised his voice, pounded his fists and utilized a series of quips, but his soliloquies didn’t stop the bill from advancing without GOP support.

Stephens was responding to a Democratic bill that would release $250 million in state funds, which would be doubled by federal matching dollars, to ease backlogged Medicaid payments. The money would be split among hospitals, pharmacists and long-term care facilities. Right now, those Medicaid providers are waiting an average of 77 days for state reimbursement.

Rep. Jay Hoffman, the Collinsville Democrat sponsoring the measure, said the bill would reduce the payment cycle by 23 days for the rest of the fiscal year, which only has two-and-a-half months left. Yet, he said the state has about $1.7 billion in Medicaid bills that carried over from last year. In other words, the $500 million that would be put into the Medicaid system through Hoffman’s bill would be a Band-Aid to cover a deep wound.

Hoffman’s bill resembles this year’s budget negotiations - exclusively Democratic and politically ripe for campaign material. It’s also controversial because it would take $250 million from hundreds of dedicated funds (fund sweeps) and fees that agencies pay into the state’s main checkbook (administrative chargebacks). Two years ago, both parties voted to allow the governor to take money from the special funds, but some of the money has been held since by state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who happens to be Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s opponent in November.

Martin Noven, Topinka’s deputy chief of staff for law and policy, said the fund sweeps are unconstitutional. He said the General Assembly, not the governor, should decide which funds and how much to sweep. He said if the General Assembly approved the specific funds and the amount to be swept, then the treasurer would oblige. Hoffman’s bill would do that. If both chambers passed the same version of the bill, Noven said the treasurer would release the money.

The House isn’t scheduled to meet again until Tuesday, April 25. The full Senate might not return until a week later, May 2. In the meantime, Medicaid providers wait, and wait and wait.

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