Group’s Funding Sought by State: Lawmakers want to Close Medicaid Deficit

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Gov. Haley Barbour has branded an anti-tobacco group as an illegally-formed organization that every year keeps $20 million of taxpayer’s money.
 
Former state Attorney General Mike Moore’s reaction to many critics of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi is simple.
 
“I am going to tear their heads off,” says Moore, who formed the group in 1998 with tobacco settlement money.
Caught in the squeeze of the state’s tightest budget crunch in recent memory, the partnership’s award-winning program is under fire by state leaders looking for ways to stem an out-of-control Medicaid budget.
 
They accuse the partnership of violating the state constitution, refusing state audits and spending millions on TV ads when the money could be given to Medicaid, where it would be matched threefold with federal money to benefit 768,000 recipients.
 
“I think it’s wrong for the partnership to have that money,” Sen. Mike Chaney, D-Vicksburg, said. “I’m not opposed to what they do, but it’s a violation of the state constitution. … We need to fund the partnership with a state donation and take the money for Medicaid.”
 
Medicaid’s current-year budget of $419 million will be spent at the end of the month — four months shy of the end of the fiscal year. To make it through June 30, the agency needs another $268 million.
 
Moore said the partnership’s programs save money by preventing and reducing smoking-related disease. Most of the programs are for youths but some help adult smokers quit.
 
“The partnership is saving hundreds of millions of dollars in future health-care costs. It is so short sighted. There’s a deficit this year, and they want this money to plug the hole. This program prevents death and disease for generations.”
 
Moore said the partnership legally operates under a court order that was part of a 1997 settlement with tobacco companies to compensate states for health-care costs linked to smoking. Mississippi receives a settlement payment every year, and this year’s payment was $116 million — $20 million went to the partnership and the rest to Medicaid.
Barbour was the first to mention retaining the partnership’s funds when he released his proposed budget in December. A former tobacco lobbyist, the governor said he didn’t oppose most of the partnership’s mission.
 
One exception the governor’s office has questioned is a $19,000 bill for a statewide newspaper ad congratulating Moore for winning a national award from the Harvard School of Public Health.
 
“The Mike Moore ad that our tax money paid for is a perfect example of what we’re talking about,” governor’s spokesman John Arledge said. “When we have a situation where Mississippi’s Medicaid will go broke at the end of the month, is that type of ad for Mike Moore more important than life-saving medication and treatment for Mississippi’s poor and sick?”
 
Moore, the partnership’s chairman, said the newspaper ad was the first one in the organization’s seven years that used him as the subject. He said he understands the criticism.
 
“I can see it both ways. I always told them to stay away from having me in stuff,” he said. He added that the media company that handles the partnership’s advertising advises that a small portion of ads be used to promote the organization to boost its credibility.
 
The state Health Care Trust Fund board, which oversees how the state invests its settlement money, voted two weeks ago to pursue legal action to take the money away from the partnership.
 
“I personally am very concerned with the lack of oversight and lack of responsibility of state money that was received on behalf of Mississippi,” said state Treasurer Tate Reeves, a Trust Fund board member.
 
He said the board relied on a legislative committee’s report released in 2003 that concluded the partnership was illegal because the court order authorizing it to receive funding violated a constitutional provision that only the legislature spend state funds.
 
Moore disagrees with the report, saying the 1997 settlement was approved through a court order that stipulated how the settlement money was to be used.
 
Initially a two-year pilot program, the partnership was extended when Moore returned to the court in 2000 to have the order amended to continue funding. He said the modification was allowed in the original settlement.
 
While the partnership is a private corporation not under the jurisdiction of state audits, Moore said the organization is open with its funding. It files a detailed tax return and an annual audit, which are public records.
 
According to those documents, the partnership spends about $6 million annually on media productions and promotions.
 
“The tobacco companies spend money saying, ‘do smoke,’ and we spend money saying, ‘don’t smoke’,” Moore said. Other ads combat alcohol and drug use.
 
In anti-tobacco campaigns, Moore said the partnership has a proven record of success — a 28 percent reduction in high school-aged smokers and a 52 percent reduction among middle schoolers.
 
The Partnership also spends $5.3 million for school nurses and on-campus activities, $3 million for tobacco-treatment services and $3 million for community programs in counties across the state. Administrative costs, including 27 employees, are $1.8 million.
 
About of third of the partnerships funds go to public entities, including the state Health Department, Attorney General’s office and several cities, counties, schools and law enforcement departments.
 
He said the programs are evaluated, and surveys measure their success. Some programs have been placed on probation or dropped because they failed to meet standards, he said.
 
Chaney has investigated the group’s funding in past years. He said legislation cannot undo the court order and the ruling must be challenged if the state wants to control the $20 million.
 
House Public Health and Welfare Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said the partnership money won’t help the budget deficit. “This is no answer for the Medicaid program,” he said. “How long would it take for a judge to rule, and then what would the appeals process be like?”
 
Group’s Funding Sought by State: Lawmakers want to Close Medicaid Deficit

Originally written By: John Fuquay

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