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House balks on Medicaid funding plan

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Lawmakers threatened to hold up hundreds of millions of dollars for state agency budgets Friday in a spat over Medicaid funding that has divided members of the Oklahoma House and threatens to disrupt the final days of the 2005 Legislature.

By a vote of 49-48, House members accepted a conference committee report on the Department of Health's $61.79 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 after Republicans rejected a Democratic proposal that supporters said will pump almost $300 million into Oklahoma's underfunded Medicaid system.

Five members of the GOP majority _ Reps. Terry Ingmire of Stillwater, Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City, Dan Sullivan of Tulsa, Mike Wilt of Bartlesville and Ray Young of Yukon _ voted with Democrats to reject the report and send it back to conference with instructions to add the Medicaid funding plan.

House members passed the agency's budget but rejected an emergency clause to make the money available as soon as the budget is signed by Gov. Brad Henry. It failed when it did not receive the required two-thirds vote of the 101-member House, with Democrats voting no.

The measure's author, Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, held the vote on the emergency open for reconsideration, meaning House members could pass it later. Lawmakers must adjourn on May 27.

Democrats also blocked emergency measures on budget bills for other state agencies, including the Auditor and Inspector's Office, the state Election Board and the Office of State Finance. Those votes, too, were held open for reconsideration.

Failure of the emergencies means money for state agency budgets will not be available for 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, or Aug. 25 _ almost two months after the start of the 2006 fiscal year.

Democrats have called on Republican leaders to bring the Medicaid plan to a vote in the House. Supporters say Medicaid reimbursement covers only about 60 percent of the cost of providing care and the additional money will fill a gap between provider costs and what the Legislature appropriates.

``Let's help the hospitals,'' said Rep. David Braddock, D-Lawton.

``They will see a financial gain,'' said Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa. Lamons said three hospitals in his downtown Tulsa district will receive $17 million in additional Medicaid funds under the plan.

House Speaker Todd Hiett of Kellyville has expressed concern about the proposal, which has the support of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, the Oklahoma State Medical Association and the chambers of commerce in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Hiett has said he wants reforms in the state's Medicaid program, including a lowering of administrative costs, before additional funds are approved.

The plan would create a provider assessment program in which state hospitals would contribute a little less than 1 percent of their gross patient revenue to produce about $93 million a year.

It would be matched with almost $200 million in federal money to bolster Oklahoma's Medicaid program, which provides health care for some of Oklahoma's neediest families.

The plan is opposed by a small group of limited service specialty hospitals that do not handle Medicaid patients. Patrick Gaines, a lobbyist for specialty hospitals, said the assessment would cost the group $8 million a year.

Minority Leader Jar Askins, D-Duncan, said the proposal affects the quality of health care for all Oklahomans, not just the state's 700,000 Medicaid recipients.

``Our hope is that House leadership stands up for the working families of our state,'' Askins said.

Kevin Pipes, chief of staff for the Health Department, said he is concerned about the failure of the emergency clause, which could force the agency to curtail services or shut down after June 30.

``We're cautiously optimistic they'll reconsider that vote after they sort some other things out,'' Pipes said.

The agency's budget includes a 7.3 percent increase in funding for pay raises for Health Department employees, nursing home surveyors and additional cervical cancer screening.
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