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Legislators cut off Medicaid budget hearing

MONTGOMERY — Two angry legislators stopped a budget hearing Thursday with Alabama Medicaid Commissioner Carol Steckel when she refused to say how much state money the program needs or give an update on the status of a funding dispute with the federal government.

The House and Senate General Fund budget committee chairmen, Sen. Roger Bedford and Rep. John Knight, told Steckel there was no reason for her to continue.

She had told lawmakers her attorneys advised her not to discuss negotiations with the federal government. She also said she would present her budget needs to Gov. Bob Riley, but not to lawmakers. Riley will present a proposed budget to the Legislature when the 2009 session begins on Feb. 3.

Steckel said at this point she does not know what Medicaid programs might have to be cut as a result of budget shortfalls caused by the recession.

“Why should we scare people right now? It’s just frustrating. If they (legislators) want to help, then they need to let us do our jobs,” Steckel said after the hearing.

Knight, D-Montgomery, said he doesn’t understand how the governor or Medicaid director can refuse to discuss the funding crisis with lawmakers.

“This is a very serious issue that’s going to hurt the citizens of this state,” Knight said.

Bedford said it’s critical for lawmakers to have as much information as possible about Medicaid’s funding situation.

“The children and senior citizens of this state are in danger,” said Bedford, D-Russellville.

Alabama officials have been negotiating with federal officials over how the state’s hospitals and nursing homes are reimbursed for treating poor citizens. The dispute could require the state to come up with $40 million to replace federal funds.

Riley said later that the state’s attorneys have advised him and Steckel not to discuss in public the negotiations with federal officials.

“We have a tremendous amount at stake in these negotiations. We’ve been instructed not to do this in the press,” Riley said.

Riley said Medicaid needs also could be affected by an economic stimulus package being worked on in Congress.

“I am willing to have individual discussions with each member of the budget committee,” Riley said.

He said he had been scheduled to meet with Bedford on Wednesday but had to cancel because he was not feeling well.

Bedford and Knight said funding for Alabama’s health care program for the poor, elderly and children does not need to be discussed behind closed doors.

“I don’t want to meet in a smoke-filled room in secrecy to dole out taxpayer dollars,” Bedford said.

“We can’t resolve this problem in secret,” Knight said.

Steckel said the negotiations have broken off with Bush administration officials and will pick up soon with the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

As budget hearings continued during the day, Bedford and Knight continued to gripe about Steckel’s appearance.

When State Health Officer Don Williamson was telling lawmakers about the dire consequences of budget cuts to public health programs, Knight broke in and said: “Unlike with Medicaid, at least with your department we know exactly what we are facing.”