Legislative Update: Medicaid and Marriage

This week marked either the victory cheer or the death knell for a round of money bills seeking approval. Tuesday, specifically, marked the deadline for the House or Senate to consider bills coming in from the opposite chamber. Among those bills are the House's ensuing attempt to balance the state's ailing Medicaid budget by raising the cigarette tax to $1.18.

House Bill 1013, a bill funding Medicaid, also contains language that would raise the state's paltry 18-cent tax on cigarettes by one dollar. But the bill is facing hard times in the Senate, which bends to the will of former tobacco lobbyist Haley Barbour.

Barbour, a repeated opponent to a tobacco tax hike, would much prefer Mississippi hospitals to cover the Medicaid shortfall through a state fee hike.

But state hospitals are already suffering severe shortfalls, according to Sam Cameron, president of the Mississippi Hospital Association. "Hospitals like Natchez Regional are already in the red," said Cameron, whose organization warned that a 1.5 percent tax hike would move the 43 percent of state hospitals making no profit or working under deficits up to 55 percent.

House Speaker Billy McCoy said the hospital tax would put the burden upon the backs of hospital patients, who would have to deal with increased costs as a result of the tax. Shawn Lea, vice president of MHA's strategic communications division confirmed as much, saying hospitals would unquestionably be transferring the costs to consumers.

"As with any business, just like if someone goes to the grocery store and steals a pack of bubble gum, we all pay for that. It will affect prices in general," Lea said.

Another House bill getting Senate scrutiny is HB 498, a consumer protection bill designed to force insurance companies to attach a bill of rights to policies and redefine their method for determining wind versus water damage in fulfilling policy obligations.

The bill is a continuation of the unfinished 2006 battle between policy-holders and insurance companies. Insurance companies refused to cover countless cases of damage following Hurricane Katrina, claiming that some hurricane-protection policies only covered water damage. (Policy-holders had difficulty showing insurance agents the water line on their living room wall if that wall was on the bottom of the ocean.)

House Bill 498 would force insurance companies to bear the burden of proof in arguing the absence of water damage.

Senators and representatives adopting the industry's side say insurance companies would either leave the state or raise insurance prices to deal with the inevitable increase in customers' successful claims, while the bill's advocates say the industry regularly ducks its responsibility and needs additional regulation.

The House, meanwhile, is mulling Senate Bill 2793, which would ultimately give power companies the chance to raise customers' rates to fund a new nuclear reactor at Grand Gulf, and build another coal-burning plant.

State law currently only allows power companies to raise rates after the plant is functional, but the old law leaves power company stockholders footing the bill with no pay back if the plant isn't finished—something power companies would much prefer their customers handle.

Walter Howell, associate state director of Mississippi American Association of Retired Persons, said the bill would be a disaster to Mississippians with fixed incomes.

"Rates skyrocketed after Grand Gulf finished the last reactor down there in Port Gibson. I don't see how senior citizens could deal with the rate increase on this new plant, which will likely cost much more than the last one," Howell told the Jackson Free Press.

Senior citizen and business advocates raised such a stink last week that the House Public Utilities Committee Chairman formed a subcommittee to further explore the issue, rather than grant immediate approval of the bill in its current form.

The Senate is continuing its war on the enemies of traditional marriage with two bills, both seeking House approval. One, SB 2766, bans unmarried couples from adopting children. The bill is likely aimed at gay couples, though Rep. Kim Campbell, D-Jackson, predicted the bill would die in committee and admitted she would work to kill it because it would also affect the adoption of minority children.

"That policy is really going to affect older children, diseased children, African American children and biracial children, because pretty much 30 or 40 percent of those children are going to single-parent homes," said Campbell, herself a single-mother adoptive parent. "I would not want to see more restrictions on adoption, especially when it's going to affect the minority community. There is not enough minority adoptions as it is."

Senate Bill 2550 protects marriage by creating beefed-up steroid-charged "covenant" marriages. The covenant marriage is a voluntary agreement between the betrothed to seek counseling and hop through additional burning hoops in the event that they eventually mull the possibility of divorce.

Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas had three of the highest divorce rates in 2003, based on figures from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics. Still no sign of a Senate bill outlawing divorce.


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