2016 legislative update: Alabama avoids deep Medicaid cuts. What's next?

Alabama Medicaid is safe – for now. State lawmakers wrapped up their special session last week with a sigh of relief after approving a one-time solution to stop deep Medicaid cuts. The Legislature agreed to use BP oil spill settlement money to address Medicaid’s $85 million shortfall for 2017 and to give the program another $105 million in 2018.

HB 36, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, will reverse the 30 percent Medicaid payment cuts to pediatricians and other primary care doctors that had begun in August. The bill will allow Alabama to move forward with the Medicaid regional care organization (RCO) reforms that will emphasize preventive care in an effort to save the state money and keep patients healthier. The measure also will prevent Medicaid from having to cut outpatient dialysis, prescription drugs and other services next year.

The House on Sept. 7 voted 87-9 to approve the conference committee’s version of the bill. Later that day, the Senate passed it 22-8. This Associated Press story has more about the plan.

“We’re relieved that the Legislature pulled Alabama back from the brink of devastating Medicaid cuts that would have hurt more than 1 million people – mostly children, seniors, and people with disabilities,” Arise executive director Kimble Forrister said. “And we’re pleased to see lawmakers take steps to help shore up Medicaid funding for the next two years. But vulnerable Alabamians’ access to health care shouldn’t be left up to stopgaps or one-time money.”

BP bill was a short-term answer to a long-term problem

The bottom line is that HB 36 is yet another temporary solution. Lawmakers uttered the phrase “kick the can down the road” many times while debating the plan, and with good reason. The bill represents another missed opportunity for the Legislature to meet Medicaid’s need for a permanent, stable source of revenue that can meet the needs of a growing population.

Fortunately, the bill includes some modest relief for the General Fund (GF) budget. Lawmakers freed up a projected $35.2 million a year on average through 2026 for Medicaid and other GF services. That is the result of using most of the BP settlement funds to repay the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) for money borrowed to prevent GF cuts in recent years. (The ATF receives royalties from oil and gas drilling off Alabama’s shores.) The bill also gives the state longer to repay ATF money borrowed in 2013-15, extending that deadline from 2026 to 2033. Those moves should ease pressure on the GF budget over the next decade, but they are still nowhere close to an adequate solution to Alabama’s recurring GF shortfalls.

The GF supports vital services like health care, child care, corrections and public safety in Alabama. The budget relies on a hodgepodge of revenue sources, most of which grow slowly even in good economic times. That leaves the GF with a structural deficit, meaning revenue growth is not strong enough to keep pace with ordinary cost growth. Read The Alabama Tax & Budget Handbook for more on how this deficit came to be and how Alabama can end it.

The GF’s recurring shortfalls have dire implications for Medicaid, which is the backbone of Alabama’s health care system. Medicaid provides vital health coverage for more than one in five Alabamians – mostly children, seniors, and people with disabilities – and helps many rural hospitals and clinics keep their doors open.

“Medicaid is essential to the hospitals and clinics on which we all rely,” Forrister said. “Putting our state’s health care infrastructure at risk is no way to build a stronger Alabama. Neither is lurching from one crisis to another because of a repeated failure to solve the General Fund’s long-term shortfall.”

Alabama needs a lasting funding solution for Medicaid, and there is a strong economic and financial case that the solution should include Medicaid expansion. Closing the coverage gap for working adults and college students would mean a healthier, more productive workforce. It would mean thousands of new jobs across Alabama. And it would mean big savings for the state on mental health care and other services. Click here to read Arise’s fact sheet on how Medicaid expansion would benefit Alabama’s health, economy and budgets.

Lottery proposal dies, returns to life, then dies again

Alabama’s latest Medicaid funding crisis began in April when the Legislature enacted a GF budget that left Medicaid $85 million short of the amount needed to maintain current services. That move prompted public outcry and motivated the #IamMedicaid social media campaign that Alabama Children First launched with Arise’s support in April to help show the human faces behind the Medicaid debate. Responding to pressure from the public, advocates and health care providers, Gov. Robert Bentley called the Legislature into special session in August to consider two possible solutions to the Medicaid crisis.

Bentley’s proposed long-term answer was a state lottery with proceeds dedicated to Medicaid. (Arise takes no position for or against a state lottery, but no lottery plan would have generated revenue in time to stop the 2017 Medicaid cuts.) As a short-term measure until lottery revenue became available, Bentley proposed a bond issue against the state’s BP oil spill settlement, freeing up state dollars for Medicaid in 2017. Clouse, who chairs the House GF budget committee, had proposed a similar measure during the regular session.

The two plans met drastically different fates. By the slimmest of margins, the Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a lottery. After a rollercoaster debate, dozens of proposed amendments and reconsideration of an initial vote against the plan, the House sent the lottery back to the Senate either to approve or refer to a conference committee. Instead, the Senate effectively voted to kill the lottery after passing one only a few days earlier. Disagreement over whether to allow casino-type games at dog tracks and other facilities led to a three-way deadlock among pro-lottery, anti-lottery and pro-casino senators, losing the lottery the supermajority of votes it needed for Senate passage.

Legislature passes BP bill to stop Medicaid cuts after touch-and-go debate

With the lottery dead, the Legislature’s only remaining option was to pass short-term funding for Medicaid during the final days of the special session. The result was a complicated bond issue guaranteed by proceeds from the BP oil spill settlement. By issuing bonds instead of accepting periodic payments from BP, Alabama could pay off state debts and create savings that would help fund Medicaid in 2017 and subsequent years.

The original House-passed bill would have given Medicaid an additional $70 million in 2017. Medicaid supporters in the Senate insisted on longer-term support and full Medicaid funding for 2017. Eventually, both chambers approved a conference committee report that provided Medicaid with the $85 million needed to avoid cuts in 2017, as well as $105 million in 2018.

In addition, the BP bill will support $120 million of road projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties and repay $400 million that the state borrowed in past years from the ATF. Legislators engaged in extensive and often heated debate over how much of the state’s BP settlement money should go to the coastal areas most deeply hurt by the 2010 oil spill. The debate broke largely along regional lines, with many north Alabama lawmakers arguing for more debt repayment and many south Alabama legislators seeking more investment in the Mobile area.

What’s next for Medicaid in Alabama?

Alabama Medicaid’s imminent funding crisis is over, but much work remains to ensure a strong future for our state’s health care system. Revenue from the BP bill should help Medicaid avoid further cuts in 2017 and will reduce the program’s projected shortfall in 2018. But when the Legislature returns in February, Medicaid funding for 2019 and beyond still will be uncertain.

Arise will continue to push for Medicaid expansion and permanent, adequate and stable tax revenue to help secure health coverage for children, seniors, people with disabilities, and working families across Alabama. “Closing the coverage gap for working people and college students would keep folks healthier, create thousands of jobs, and save the state millions of dollars on mental health care and other services,” Forrister said. “Expanding Medicaid would be a victory for Alabama’s economy, budgets and families.”

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst, and Chris Sanders, communications director. Posted Sept. 15, 2016.

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