published Friday, March 11th, 2011

House panel OKs $18.25 billion budget

ATLANTA—A House panel on Thursday approved an $18.25 billion state budget that restores funding for some low-income Medicaid recipients but also boosts health insurance costs for state employees.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 59-1 for the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Georgia is facing the loss of about $1 billion in federal stimulus money in the coming year, much of it flowing to schools and Medicaid. So, while revenues in the state have been rebounding, the cuts are continuing. Georgia has slashed $3 billion in state funds from the budget over the last three years.

Budget writers were left scrambling in recent weeks to address a $250 million shortfall in the state health benefit plan. They’ve proposed a 20 percent jump in insurance premiums for state employees, teachers and retirees to help fill the deep hole.

The plan insures nearly 700,000 state workers, retirees and school employees, as well as their dependents. The 20 percent increase will mean employees must pay an additional $15 to $80 a month, depending on the plan they use. The increase could have been as high as 67 percent but lawmakers softened the blow by borrowing $70 million from Medicaid and increasing health costs for noncertified workers, like custodians and bus drivers

House budget writers on Thursday also restored more than $7 million for vision, dental and podiatry care for low-income Medicaid recipients. Gov. Nathan Deal had proposed the cuts but Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England said lawmakers concluded the move ultimately would increase costs by forcing poor residents to seek emergency room care.

Lawmakers also scaled back cuts planned for doctors who serve Medicaid patients. The governor’s budget had called for a 1 percent cut in reimbursement rates for physicians. The House reduced that to 0.5 percent.

Lawmakers also scraped together money to fund Meals on Wheels for senior citizens.

The budget faces a vote by the full House today. It also must clear the state Senate before it heads to Deal.

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