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Originally published March 9, 2010 at 8:08 p.m., updated March 10, 2010 at 6:45 a.m.
TOPEKA Members of the Senate budget committee that oversees spending by the Kansas Health Policy Authority made clear today they were unhappy with proposed budget cuts offered by the agency.
In the course of three meetings Tuesday, members twice told the agency's chief to go back and try again.
"We need some more recommendations and you need to give it your best shot because we need to conclude with KHPA tomorrow," Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, told Andy Allison, the agency's executive director.
McGinn chairs the Senate Ways and Means subcommittee that deals with social service agencies, including the health policy authority and the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
The subcommittee met at 7:15 a.m., noon and again at the end of the legislative day to go over proposed cuts offered by the health policy authority and SRS.
The toughest questioning was directed at the health policy authority, which had put forth options for cutting $10.4 million in state general fund spending.
No interest in cutting call-in center
But senators said they had no desire to eliminate the call-in center where operators help the state's Medicaid providers sort through billing questions, especially in light of a recent 10 percent reduction in Medicaid reimbursement rates. The health policy authority contracts with HP Enterprises, which operates the call center. Cutting 11 contract workers would have saved the state $1 million, according to the agency.
Senators said they also didn't want to cut staff at the eligibility clearinghouse, another contractor-run operation that sorts through applications for Medicaid and HealthWave, the health insurance programs for the state's needy. The clearinghouse already has a backlog of about 15,000 applications.
Senators became so frustrated with the options offered that at one point they talked about the possibility of reorganizing the agency, which was created in 2005 to oversee Medicaid, HealthWave and the state employee's health benefit plan.
That talk came after some senators showed interested in the option of cutting 50 agency jobs.
That provoked response from Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.
"We need to think seriously about what we're doing here, essentially gutting the agency's operating staff," she said.
Kelly said if the intention were to cut that deep then perhaps senators just as well think about dismantling the agency.
McGinn later cited that as an option to be considered.
Also talked about was the possibility of increasing the monthly premiums paid by families enrolled in HealthWave, the program for insuring children in families that are poor or have moderate incomes. Currently, participants pay on a sliding scale depending upon income.
Allison said raising the basic premium from $10 a month to $20 month would save the state about $1.4 million a year mostly because of families that would drop out, sparing the expense of providing them services.
Senators seemed to prefer that option to the one offered at the first meeting of the day, when agency officials said $6.5 million could be saved by instituting "a five-month enrollment" delay for those who signed up for the Children's Health Insurance Program or CHIP portion of HealthWave.
HealthWave is the name used for the combined children's Medicaid and CHIP programs.
The agency was instructed to bring some other recommendations to the committee when it meets at about noon Wednesday in Statehouse Room 548-S.
Not over until it's over
With respect to the SRS budget, McGinn asked fellow committee members to consider offsetting possible cuts to programs for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled with more than $15 million in reductions to early childhood development programs, most of which were not within the purview of the subcommittee.
Committtee members also tentatively agreed to eliminate the General Assistance program, which provides some basic aid to some of the state's poorest and most distressed individuals.
McGinn told people watching the committee's work that she and other senators were taking no pleasure from the budget cutting and that she hoped other solutions might be found by the time the Legislature approves its final budget bills later in the spring.
"This has been very difficult for us," she said. "We don't like doing what we're having to do. It's not over until we get out of here, hopefully the first part of May."
Kelly told observers they should spread the word among the general public that the only way to avoid cuts to programs was to increase taxes.
"The only way to undo this is more revenue," she said. "There are people all over the state who haven't got the message yet and they need to get the message."