Medically Needy plan gets reprieve
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2003
TALLAHASSEE - A weekend of negotiations between House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King produced a deal that will keep the state's Medically Needy program alive for another year, avoiding budget cuts scheduled to take effect Thursday.
The deal still must be approved by the state Senate, but both sides said Monday they are confident that will happen quickly.
"Both groups have shown their intent to do that this time around," said King, R-Jacksonville.
The House passed the measure Thursday. The Senate is expected to take it up today. It would then go to Gov. Jeb Bush to sign.
Shauna Anderson, a kidney-transplant recipient from Altamonte Springs who depends on the program to survive, said she will rejoice - when the governor signs the bill.
"I'm really, really hopeful, but I don't want to get myself too psyched up in case it falls through," said Anderson, 31, whose antirejection drugs cost $3,000 a month.
"I don't care who takes credit for it. As long as they take this gun away from my head, I'll praise them."
In a legislative session dominated by a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, the looming cuts to the $368-million Medically Needy program got lawmakers' attention like nothing else.
Beginning Thursday, Anderson and some 27,000 other Medically Needy participants are supposed to spend all but $450 of their monthly income on their medical care before the state would help with the bills. Participants who said they could not afford to live on $450 a month would have to leave the program and fend for themselves.
The cuts sparked outrage and forced lawmakers to scramble to extend the program for at least two months, if not more.
But last week, the program got snared in an unrelated fight over a new drug program for seniors.
Byrd wouldn't agree to a two-month delay unless King agreed to fund the seniors' drug program; King praised the drug program but said the state couldn't afford it when it was cutting existing ones. The drug program would allow low-income seniors to buy their prescriptions at the same discount price the state pays for drugs in its Medicaid program.
Medically Needy participants were left watching the clock and wondering what to do come Thursday.
Late Sunday night King told Byrd he would support the senior drug program if spending were capped at $30-million a year.
Monday morning Byrd agreed.
"The House has been leading the way and we have accomplished something for 27,000 people," said Byrd, who embraced the program after it was proposed by Democrats. And those are just the Medically Needy participants, said Byrd, R-Plant City. Some 250,000 seniors could be helped with the drug program, he added.
"Today is a day when we have done something good for 300,000, more or less, Floridians," Byrd said.
So far, though, neither the two-month Medically Needy extension nor next year's budget has passed, and Medically Needy participants are left to rely on the promise of lawmakers who made the deal. As a precaution, the Senate has attached the two-month extension to several bills in case a problem arises with the bill already passed by the House.
"I think we made a lot of commitments in the House to take care of the citizens who are most vulnerable," said Rep. Carole Green, R-Fort Myers, who is in charge of social service spending for the House.
"I am a little concerned ... about what that does to other programs," she added.
King was equally cautious.
"The only caveat is that until we start (budget) allocations we don't know where that money will come from," King said, referring to next year's Medically Needy program and the senior drug program. Money for the two-month extension will come from a lawsuit the state recently settled.
King's decision to accept the senior drug program wins him some points with Senate Democrats, who had threatened to vote against the final budget without it.
"This is one of the Democrats' priorities," said Senate Democratic leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. "The plan is our proposal, so we're pleased that leadership in both chambers has agreed to it."
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