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Legislature

Medically Needy program extension passes

An emergency stopgap measure keeps it running another two months.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published May 1, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - With one hour to spare, Florida lawmakers passed an emergency measure to Wednesday extending the Medically Needy program for two more months.

The House unanimously passed the bill just after 11 p.m., avoiding deep cuts scheduled to take effect at midnight. The cuts had sent fear through 27,000 participants, who rely on the state to pay medical bills that otherwise would drain most or all of their income. Many patients had said they could die without the program, sparking the biggest public outcry of the 2003 session.

The agency that administers the Medically Needy program, acting on lawmakers' public promises earlier this week to stay the cuts, already has reprogrammed its computers to continue the program. How the program could continue without legislative action was unclear.

Medically Needy serves catastrophically ill Floridians, such as organ transplant recipients and AIDS, cancer and dialysis patients, who have exhausted their own insurance and whose incomes would be depleted by their bills. In many cases, the patients' bills range from $1,500 to $3,000 a month.

During last year's budget crunch, lawmakers decided that Medically Needy participants would have to spend all but $450 of their monthly income on their medical care before the state would help with the bills. But they delayed the cuts until today.

The issue quickly ballooned into the biggest humanitarian issue in the Capitol after participants were formally notified of the cuts in letters from the state. They flooded lawmakers with letters, e-mails and phone calls in which they said they could not live on $450 a month and would have to leave the program or lose their homes.

The Senate put a two-month fix on several bills and shipped them to the House for final approval. But by 9 p.m. Wednesday, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd still had not allowed any of those bills to come to the floor.

"It's not an emergency," Byrd said. He said he didn't think the state had given proper notice of the cuts, and therefore the program wouldn't change today, but he didn't elaborate.

"The House is committed. The Senate is, too. I think it will be done," Byrd said Wednesday afternoon.

Byrd's statement that the problem was not an emergency drew immediate fire from Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox.

"The difference between Johnnie Byrd and God is that God does not think he is Johnnie Byrd," Maddox said in a statement.

[Last modified May 1, 2003, 04:06:34]


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