The Star-Ledger

N.J.'s Poorest Residents Fear Christie Budget Will Cut Medicaid Funds

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, February 17, 2011

By Jarrett Renshaw / Statehouse Bureau

TRENTON — Advocates for New Jersey's poorest residents are bracing for a tough battle starting next week when Gov. Chris Christie unveils a state budget they fear will include painful cuts in Medicaid funding.

In recent months, Christie has signaled that sustaining the current level of Medicaid funding is not realistic as the state faces a massive budget deficit, weak revenues and the loss of about $800 million in federal stimulus dollars that were used to prop up the program during the economic downturn.

Across the country, governors in similar financial straits have cut optional Medicaid programs, increased co-pays or reduced how much they reimburse providers.

New Jersey expects to spend about $4.4 billion during the fiscal year than ends June 30 to cover about 1.3 million of the state's poorest residents. That includes millions for optional services like prescription medicines and dental services.

Advocates fear these services may be on the chopping block.

"We are extremely concerned because these optional services are not optional," said Lowell Arye, executive director for the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities. "Other states have cut optional services, and it would not surprise me to see the same thing proposed here."

Crystal Snedden, a health care campaign coordinator with New Jersey Citizen Action, said she is anticipating cuts, but is holding out hope that Christie will see that Medicaid is not the problem, but the solution.

"We think cuts would be really short-sighted, especially in these economic times," said Snedden. "It's just going to push people into charity care and hurt the economy even more."

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-Bergen), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, has no such hope: "I don't expect Gov. Christie to have any sympathy toward Medicaid in his budget."

Christie's office declined to discuss his upcoming spending plan before it's unveiled Tuesday in the annual budget address.

Medicaid is a federal program that provides medical services to the poor. A family of three would have to earn less $24,363 annually to qualify for Medicaid.

Every state has opted into Medicaid and shares the cost on a roughly even basis with the federal government. By accepting Medicaid dollars, New Jersey and other states are required to provide specific services such as such as hospitalization, nursing home care and routine doctor visits.

Every state can also offer optional services, such as physical therapy, dental, vision and paying for things like prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs. In the current budget year, taxpayers are expected to pay about $10 million for dental services and about $474 million on prescription drugs.

In addition to cutting these optional programs, Christie could call for reductions in the amount the state reimburses providers that participate in the Medicaid system.

New Jersey already has some of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country and advocates say cutting them further will push practitioners out of the system and restrict access for needy patients. "You can't find a dentist now who participates in Medicaid," said Arye.

Currently, Medicaid recipients don't pay co-pays. With the exception of last year, every governor has proposed instituting co-pays, only to face harsh criticism and then retreat.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-Bergen), who chairs the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, said Medicaid funding will be a flash point this budget season and expects Democrats will fight for poor and working class families.

"How do we compare the large sums of money paid to Xanadu or the revenue loss with the opportunity scholarships to providing medical care to the state's neediest residents?" said Weinberg. "We need to have a sense of priorities."

Copyright 2011 The Star-Ledger

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