Budget negotiators strike deal on Health & Human Services cuts

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Budget negotiators agreed to a $303.9 million rate cut for hospitals under Medicaid but went with a relatively modest reduction to substance abuse and mental health programs Sunday as the House and Senate moved toward a final deal on a spending plan for next year, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The agreements between House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, mean that higher education is the only major area of the budget where lawmakers have yet to agree on funding.

Grimsley and Alexander still have to hammer out agreements on hundreds of pages of conforming bills and budgetary fine print. But an agreement on the budget bill itself by late Monday or early Tuesday would likely pave the way for an on-time end to the session, scheduled to draw to a close by Friday.

“We should be able to resolve the issues tomorrow,” Alexander said after the meeting.

Among the agreements: A cut to hospitals that will reduce Medicaid rates by $303.9 million, a decrease that would likely become $404.2 million in future years. Lawmakers used some funding to make the cut smaller this year, but that money would go away in future years.

Nursing homes would take a 1.25 percent reduction in their rates.

The conference committee also agreed to a cut of $2.1 million for substance abuse and mental health programs, far lower than the reductions originally proposed by the Senate. Even on its last offer in the conference committee, the Senate was pushing for cuts of nearly $46.7 million.

Grimsley said she wasn’t happy even with the smaller reduction.

“I have a fundamental problem cutting those programs, because they feed into so many other social programs: the emergency rooms, prisons,” she said. “But our money is what it is.”

The agreement also doesn’t include $438.5 million in federal money to help increase Medicaid payments to primary-care physicians that would flow to the state as part of the federal health-care signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010. Florida is one of several states challenging that law before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s Affordable Care Act dollars and we’re not taking them,” House Health Care Appropriations Chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said after the meeting.

Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, ripped the move afterwards a maneuver more about politics than the budget.

“These are the kinds of things that we can’t do, and other states are doing, and we pay our taxes just like every other state, and we should be taking advantage of these federal grants,” Rich said.

Lawmakers still have to resolve how to cut university budgets by almost $300 million, with the understanding that the 11 institutions would then tap their reserves to plug the hole. That plan, first hatched by the Senate, became controversial when Tampa Bay-area senators accused Alexander of disproportionately targeting the University of South Florida as part of his quest to win independence for the school’s Lakeland campus.

Alexander said Sunday that lawmakers are still considering about a half-dozen ways to divvy up the cuts — which he said were a way to keep other cuts to the budget as low as possible.

“We also want to make sure that we don’t ask any university to go so low in their balance with the methodology that they have real serious problems,” he said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.