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    Lawmakers back off cut in health aids for poor

    Although proposed budget cuts that would affect thousands who need eye, hearing and dental care are dropped, other health care changes survive.

    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Thousands of poor people would continue to get state money for eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures under an agreement announced Saturday by legislative leaders.

    House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Lacasa contended the proposed cuts were never more than a negotiating tactic.

    "The hardest part about being a legislator in this position is you have to posture to get where you want at the end of the day," said Lacasa, R-Miami.

    More than 190,000 poor people who get eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures from the state would have seen their benefits cut under the House's proposed spending plan. But budget negotiators agreed Saturday to come up with about $37-million to avoid the cuts.

    Although Lacasa described the House proposal to eliminate the benefits as a tactical maneuver, it hurt Republicans politically. The proposal spawned critical media coverage around the state. Democrats portrayed Republicans as eager to cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of hearing aids and eyeglasses for the poor.

    Senate President John McKay and his budget negotiators have insisted for weeks that they would not cut benefits for the poor.

    "The important thing is, there are not going to be any reductions in eligibility," said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, on Saturday.

    Legislators already have agreed to restore proposed cuts to about 1,800 elderly and disabled people receiving broad Medicaid benefits. They also dropped a plan that would have saved money by tightening the requirements for poor, pregnant women to become eligible for Medicaid.

    But there apparently will be other changes that will affect health care for the poor in an effort to save the state money in a tight budget year. Those changes include forcing more Medicaid recipients into managed care programs and temporarily reducing payments to many health care providers.

    Budget negotiators hope to finish their work on the more than $50-billion state budget as early as tonight. The agreement has to be available by midnight Tuesday if the Legislature is to adjourn on time Friday.

    Among the remaining issues:

    Possible tuition increases for community colleges and universities.

    University officials complain that legislators have not come up with enough money yet to cover the costs of new students.

    Transferring unspent money from the popular Preservation 2000 land-buying program to the Everglades restoration project, which would free general tax dollars for other needs.

    It was uncertain Saturday whether legislators would transfer $75-million or $100-million.

    Covering the costs of new tests that Bright Futures scholarship students could begin to take this fall and would be required to take during the 2002-03 school year.

    House Speaker Tom Feeney sees the tests as a way to ensure that more college students graduate earlier and save the state money. But budget negotiators had not set aside any money to cover the costs of the tests.

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