State freezes Medicaid

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 8, 2006

RALEIGH – Help is on the way.

Thursday, the North Carolina General Assembly placed their stamp of approval on the state’s $18.9 billion budget for 2006-07. A portion of that financial package earmarks $27.4 million in Medicaid relief for all 100 counties. That amount was a compromise between the House and the Senate. The House version of the budget included a total of $53 million to cap the rate and provide additional assistance to counties with high numbers of Medicaid recipients, including Bertie, Hertford and Northampton. The Senate did not provide any assistance, but reached the $27.4 million compromise.

North Carolina remains as the only state in the nation that requires its counties to pay for a portion of Medicaid.

“We were hoping for the targeted relief for the low-wealth counties like us,” Zee Lamb, Bertie County Manager, said. “That didn’t happen, but the agreement between the House and the Senate did freeze Medicaid spending for 2006-07 at the level we spent during the 2005-06 budget year.”

Lamb reported that Bertie’s share of Medicaid expenses during 05-06 was just shy of $2.3 million. The county’s recently approved budget for 06-07 set aside $2.4 million for Medicaid. If Governor Mike Easley, as expected, signs the state budget into law, that would mean an approximate $100,000 in Medicaid savings for Bertie County.

“We appreciate the freeze for us and the other low-wealth counties who are forced to commit millions of dollars worth of funds that we have no control over,” Lamb said. “We are disappointed that we didn’t receive the targeted relief.”

Lamb said the funding cap is just one of the three issues he would like to see the state address in upcoming budget years. The first is the targeted relief for the counties whose budgets are strained by Medicaid payments. Second was the cap or the freeze and thirdly, he would like to see the state pick-up the entire costs involved in Medicaid and not pass along a portion for the counties to pay.

“The state has estimated the freeze will cost them upwards to $30 million,” Lamb said. “I’m under the impression that if we were to exceed our Medicaid cap, the state would use that pool of money ($27.4 million) to cover the overage.”

In Northampton County, Finance Officer Dot Vick said that although the final tally for 05-06 Medicaid spending rests on the bills incurred during the month of June, of which she is waiting to receive, she estimated that annual figure at $2.2 million. It stood at $2.03 million through the month of May.

Northampton County Commissioners approved $2.1 million for Medicaid during the 2006-07 budget year.

“That means we will not have any savings, but at least we can rest comfortably knowing that our share of the Medicaid payments will not exceed $2.2 million,” Vick said. “Just two budget years ago, our share of the Medicaid payments stood at $1.7 million. That shows you how fast our Medicaid payments are rising.”

Northampton County Manager Wayne Jenkins said the cap agreed upon by North Carolina legislators is hopefully a sign of better things to come.

“I believe this is the first acknowledgement by the full legislature that Medicaid is a burden to everyone, especially the low wealth counties like us,” Jenkins said. “Hopefully we can continue to pursue total relief for the counties.”

Without that acknowledgement, Jenkins was worried about the future.

“The previous trend of escalating Medicaid costs would eventually break the counties,” he noted. “Tax revenue cannot continue to keep pace to support the trend of rising Medicaid costs.”

Hertford County Manager Loria Williams said that while the freeze on 05-06 level was appreciated, she was wishing more along the lines of state money coming into the county that could be used to replenish the general fund balance. That pot of money takes a financial beating annually just to keep-up with the ever-increasing costs of providing services.

“We’re still waiting for official notification from the NCACC (North Carolina Association of County Commissioners) on what direction we should take in lieu of this new state budget,” Williams said. “We do not know at this time if the freeze on Medicaid payments is just a one-year deal or if it will go beyond one year.”

Williams said she did know that Hertford County will not receive any financial windfall from the state.

“Our Medicaid budget is figured extremely close to the vest,” she said. “We do not use what the state predicts our Medicaid payments to be. Rather, Hertford County bases their payments on the year-by-year history of the Medicaid program.”

To prove how closely Hertford County budgets its annual Medicaid payments, Williams, still awaiting the final numbers from June, projects the county will have spent roughly $2.242 million on the program during 2005-06. The 2006-07 budget calls for $2.250 million in Medicaid payments for 2006-07, a difference of only $8,000.