Florida Politics

Feds suggest possible hospital funding to end Florida’s budget standoff

Federal health officials told Florida on Thursday that the state should expect big reductions in future years for a hospital payment program that’s at the crux of a political stalemate blocking passage of a new state budget.

In a letter to state health officials, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that the state may justify needing about $1 billion in government funding for uncompensated care next year, or less than half of what it got this year, and even less in subsequent years. That’s a clear message from Washington that Florida needs to reform its hospital payment system.

According to CMS, $1 billion from federal, state and local resources would “maintain stability while the system transitions’’ to new ways of paying hospitals for the high cost of treating poor patients as the federal government phases out the current funding system known as the low income pool, or LIP.

Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital is by far the largest recipient of LIP money. Tampa General Hospital, All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg and Broward Health also are big recipients. They were promised $731 million this year in payments provided through federal and local tax money totaling nearly $2.2 billion.

Carlos Migoya, chief executive of Jackson Health System, whose hospital network risked losing about $200 million a year without renewal or replacement of LIP, said the federal government’s letter was “a good starting point.”

In a memo to Miami-Dade commissioners and Jackson trustees, Migoya said that his administrators are discussing the CMS letter with state legislators to determine whether Florida will contribute general funds to fill the gap created by the federal cuts.

Migoya noted that the federal government “clearly does not see LIP as a sustainable or long-term solution” for the state’s uninsured patients. Jackson treats more uninsured and Medicaid patients than any other hospital system in the state.

Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University and an expert on Florida’s Medicaid program, said the proposal from CMS amounts to “a sizable cut” for Florida.

“We’re talking a 55 percent cut in federal funding next year, and then a 75 percent cut in the second year,’’ she said.

Alker said that the reduction in LIP funding, “is going to inflict some pain on hospitals if the state does not expand Medicaid.”

An estimated 850,000 Floridians would be newly eligible for Medicaid under an expansion plan.

In their letter, the feds did not promise any LIP money. But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told lawmakers that the news is a “clear indication (that) Florida will receive a significant level of LIP funds, which will help us in our efforts to finish the budget.”

The $1 billion cited by the feds would revert to the level of LIP funding before 2014.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, told senators that the news is more proof that a form of Medicaid expansion is the answer.

“It remains clear that a sustainable long-term solution is needed,” Gardiner said. “As you are aware, the Senate has proposed a Florida solution.”

The letter said CMS has not made “a final determination on LIP” and keeps alive the prospect of some LIP money next year. Based on the current 60/40 Medicaid funding formula in which the federal government pays 60 percent, the feds would provide about $600 million in the coming year, and $360 million the following year to give the state time to retool its payment system in anticipation of an LIP phase-out.

The letter arrived at the state Medicaid agency a day after Gov. Rick Scott reiterated his view that “the Obama administration is walking away from a healthcare program for low-income families.”

Scott had included $1.3 billion in LIP money in his January budget proposal. But when the feds balked at renewing it, he sued the Obama administration, claiming it used LIP to coerce Florida into expanding Medicaid, a form of insurance for low-income people run by states and funded largely by the federal government.

At a visit to an elementary school in Perry, Scott told reporters on Thursday: “This is a federal program, so when they decide to start a program, they should not be walking away from a program. So my expectation is they continue to fund their program.”

In its five-page letter, CMS also tried again to nudge the state toward Medicaid expansion, the other issue that has forced an extended stalemate between the Senate, which supports a form of healthcare expansion using federal dollars, and the House and Scott, who oppose it.

“The option to expand Medicaid to low-income adults remains available to the state, and as described later in this letter, could provide an estimated revenue increase of $2 billion annually to the Florida hospitals over and above funding through sources such as the LIP,” wrote CMS director Vikki Wachino, who added: “The decision about whether or not to expand Medicaid is a state option, as we have noted previously.”

CMS’ letter follows a May 6 meeting between Scott and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in Washington, which came after Scott sued the federal government.

While the latest action by Washington carries no guarantee of money, the feds appear to be edging closer to a resolution at a time when the uncertainty of LIP is a major factor in a long-running political impasse that has led to the worst breakdown in Tallahassee in more than two decades.

The impasse halted budget negotiations and led to a House decision to prematurely adjourn on April 28, an act the Florida Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional. It also prompted Scott to direct state agencies to prepare for a government shutdown if no budget is in place by July 1.

At the feds’ urging, state officials submitted a proposal to revamp the LIP program last month. But CMS expressed concern that Florida was trying to use the federal cash as an alternative to expanding its Medicaid program.

While the state Senate included a plan to accept federal Medicaid expansion money in its budget proposal, House Republicans and Scott opposed it.

Federal officials have said they will consider the state’s bid to extend LIP separately from any Medicaid expansion plan. Yet, Thursday’s letter from CMS makes it clear that the agency favors expansion, which it says would result in “significant benefits to low income Floridians and the Florida healthcare system.”

Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen and Kathleen McGrory and The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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