Locals praise Butterfield#8217;s effort

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 15, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. – From the outset of his political career, U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield vowed to fight for the people of the First District of North Carolina.

That “fighter” threw a wicked punch here Tuesday.

Rural North Carolina counties, struggling to keep their financial heads above water, gained a key ally in their fight to be relieved of their Medicaid burden when Congressman Butterfield introduced on Tuesday the Medicaid County Protection Act of 2007. The legislation would prevent states from passing along their Medicaid costs to counties.

“Medicaid is a vitally important and successful cooperative program between the state and federal government,” Butterfield said. “Passing along the state’s burden to the counties is making it increasingly difficult for many communities to provide basic services.”

North Carolina is the only state that requires counties to pay a fixed percentage of the state’s Medicaid responsibility. The state requires North Carolina counties to pay 15 percent of the non-federal share. In 2005-06, North Carolina counties paid nearly $460 million to subsidize the state’s Medicaid share.

In Bertie County, $2.4 million of their $19 million budget for 2006-07 is dedicated to Medicaid. That represents roughly 14 percent of Bertie’s overall budget.

“This is great news,” Zee Lamb, Bertie County Manager, said upon learning of Butterfield’s effort. “I’m pretty sure he’s been hearing all the Medicaid funding stories throughout his district. This move may place some pressure on the state to do the right thing and take away the Medicaid burden placed on the counties.”

Lamb added that the bill, at the very least, puts the Medicaid problem on the attention cycle.

“Medicaid relief has been the number one priority of our board of commissioners for years,” Lamb noted. “Now, influential state senators and state representatives are addressing this issue. Hopefully they will now listen to the message we’ve been sending for years, when you’re poor already, the Medicaid burden just puts you deeper in debt.”

Over in Northampton County, Manager Wayne Jenkins said the 2006-07 budget earmarked $2.5 million in Medicaid funding. He said it takes 22.8 cents of every property tax dollar just to pay the ever-rising Medicaid bill.

“We stand in support of Congressman Butterfield and the bill he has introduced,” Jenkins said. “We look forward to the ensuing debate on this issue and we also look forward to assisting the Congressman in his effort to reduce the financial burden placed on rural counties such as ours in regards to skyrocketing Medicaid costs.”

Hertford County dedicates $2.25 million of its $22.67 million budget towards paying the Medicaid bill. County Manager Loria Williams said Medicaid flashed a double-edge sword in her county n one where property taxes are high in order to offset growing budget items such as Medicaid compounded by tremendous growth in the number of individuals that qualify for Medicaid.

“Maybe the federal attention that Congressman Butterfield’s bill will create will help spark discussion within state government concerning lifting the Medicaid burden on the counties,” Williams said. “Hopefully, the Medicaid burden on all the counties of North Carolina is now on the radar screen of our state officials.”

State legislators did provide up to $27.4 million in the 2006-07 budget to temporarily cap county Medicaid costs at 2005-06 levels. Meanwhile, the State-Local Fiscal Modernization Study Commission has been charged with devising a strategy to relieve counties of the Medicaid burden.

“Medicaid relief has been the number one priority for North Carolina counties for several years and the recent actions of the General Assembly show that state legislators are listening to our concerns,” said North Carolina Association of County Commissioners Executive Director David F. Thompson. “We are grateful that Rep. Butterfield is taking this fight to Washington, D.C.”

Thompson continued, “The Medicaid burden is particularly devastating on our rural counties, some of whom spend nearly one-third of their property tax revenue on Medicaid costs. In other counties, the Medicaid responsibility is diverting county funds from such critical needs as new schools.”

A 2006 survey by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction revealed approximately $9.7 billion of new schools will be needed in the state over the next five years to handle the state’s rapidly growing population and to accommodate recent legislative mandates for smaller class sizes in the lower grades.

Butterfield said that the current situation is very difficult for many of the poor and rural communities that he represents because local property tax revenues simply cannot keep up with growing Medicaid costs. Butterfield also pointed out that states, unlike counties, have the ability to make changes in eligibility, covered services and how those services are reimbursed and delivered.

“Medicaid costs for some counties grew as much as 137 percent over the last seven years, yet counties lack any means to deal with the huge increases,” Butterfield said.