House touts Medicaid proposal

First Posted: 1/15/2009

RALEIGH - State House members last week touted their fix for the Medicaid burden that is drowning the state's poorest counties: a bill that would permanently cap counties’ Medicaid costs and partially reduce the remaining bill.
Reps. Doug Yongue and Rep. Bill Owens, two of the bill’s primary sponsors, spoke on behalf of the bill Thursday during a press conference and said the legislation has the support of 119 of 120 House members. The only member not to sign on has been Speaker Joe Hackney.
“It’s going to be a sure thing if we can find the funds,” Yongue said.
The bill, which was filed Wednesday, would appropriate $90 million to cap Medicaid costs in the next fiscal year and another $10 million would be used to start chipping away at the Medicaid costs in counties with the most Medicaid-eligible residents. In fiscal year 2008-2009, those numbers would increase to $154 million for the cap and $15 million for targeted relief.
If the bill passes, Robeson County would pay no more than $12.1 million a year for Medicaid - which equals almost 25 cents on the county's tax rate. The state estimates that the county’s Medicaid cost next year will be about $15.4 million, so the county would receive about $3.3 million in aid.
Robeson would also be first in line for a second round of funding because one third of its residents are Medicaid eligible - the highest rate in the state.
Yongue said that the burden hurts counties like Robeson and Scotland, which have some of the highest unemployment rates and property tax rates in the state.
“I don’t think low-wealth counties should have to bear that burden,” he said. “Something is going to have to give.”
Yongue said that his goal is to reduce Medicaid costs, and if a better bill emerges from the Senate, he’ll support it.
“I’m not on an ego trip to get my bill passed,” he said. “If there is something out there better than this, we’ll take a look at it.”
Owens, who represents Pasquotank County, said the show of solidarity behind the bill illustrates how dire the Medicaid situation has become.
“Medicaid is a big problem for the state as well as the counties,” Owens said. “But we put more on the counties than any other state … we need to address that issue.”
Relieving counties of the Medicaid burden has been the primary goal of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners for the past several years, said President Terry Garrison. North Carolina is the only state in the country that asks county governments to chip in for Medicaid, which provides health insurance the poor and underinsured.
“This represents a huge first step toward that goal,” he said.
Garrison said that Medicaid costs are growing 10 percent a year, easily surpassing the growth of taxes bases in most counties.
“This imbalance is forcing counties across the state to either raise property taxes or cut funding to other critical services, like schools and public safety,” he said.
The Senate has been talking about a bill that would relieve county governments of the entire Medicaid burden in exchange for a bump in the local sales tax that would generate new revenue for the state.

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