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Blunt team cannot rule out the possibility of future Medicaid cuts

November 15, 2004
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - At a time when many Tennessee residents are fretting over the dissolution of their state Medicaid program -- a cut that could leave 430,000 Tennesseans without health care -- a spokesman for Governor-elect Matt Blunt's transition team said he cannot rule out the possibility of a reduction in Missouri's health care coverage.

"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, which provides health care coverage to low-income citizens, shouldn't come as a surprise now that the Republicans control the Governor's office and have increased 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 benefits.

After initially proposing a cut that would have saved millions of dollars by dropping thousands of people from the rolls, the Republicans faced strong resistance from Democratic legislators and Gov. Bob Holden as well as a few members of their own party in the Senate.

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

Throughout his campaign, Governor-elect Matt Blunt said he did not support the 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 of St. Charles, the House Budget Committee chairman, was a proponent of the eligability cuts.

"I think that the waste fraud and abuse is a good first step, my long term opinion, beyond this year, is that at some point in time you will have to address eligibility in some fashion," Bearden said. "We'll take it a step at a time, as long as we have an agenda and action that is moving towards a solution."

Bearden said while he may not see eye-to-eye with Blunt on the necessity of a roll back, 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 last thirty years, the budget has grown from $81 million to $4.4 billion -- one of the fastest growing segements of the state's budget.

During the 1990s, Missouri legislators used the extra tax revenues brought in by the economic boom times to increase the number of people who qualified for Medicaid.

In January 1993, there were 510,788 Missourians on Medicaid. According to government records, that number today stands at over 980,000.

Don Hall, a delegation chair in the Silver Haired Legislature, an elected body of senior citizens that works to promote elderly issues, said he doesn't think Tennessee's cutback has Missouri seniors worried, but that there is uncertainty about what to expect from the state government in the next session.

"Where they're going to go, I can't tell," Hall said.