Fla. budget deal a winner for nursing homes, state

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 7:53 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 7:53 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Florida nursing homes and the state will benefit at federal expense from a deal lawmakers reached Saturday as part of negotiations on a budget deficit-elimination package.

Legislative leaders were expected to resume talks Sunday after working late into the night in an effort to resolve differences between the House and Senate on a plan to plug at least a $2.3 billion hole in the state's current $66.3 billion budget, which runs through June 30. A final vote is expected by Friday to close out a two-week special session.

The only remaining issues were over how much money should be taken out of reserves and trust funds to help pay the state's daily operating costs.

The state is expected to gain a net $34 million for the current budget year and more next year from the nursing home agreement worked out by a House-Senate conference committee on health care.

"It's not new money," said Rep. Kevin Ambler, who led the House side in the negotiations. "It's a way of using leveraged money. The health appropriation area's unique in that there are a lot of different tools and devices because it's so intricately tied into the federal program."

The agreement would cut state Medicaid payments by 10.5 percent to 463 nursing homes that care for low-income elderly and disabled people as of April 1.

A month later, the nursing homes will begin paying assessments of about 5 percent of gross revenues retroactive to the beginning of last year.

As a result, though, they'll get additional federal matching money to more than offset the assessments and lost state dollars. That's because the federal government pays 55 percent of Medicaid costs to only 45 percent by the state, and there's talk in Congress of increasing the federal share to 59 percent.

"You're getting a net increase of 10 cents more back on every dollar that you've paid in," said Ambler, R-Lutz. "In the end they should be really in good shape."

Both chambers Friday voted to cut nearly $1 billion in spending as part of their deficit reduction plans. Higher traffic fines, reserves and funding shifts would make up the rest of the deficit. While that's as far as the senate went, the House added a cushion of more than $500 million that brought its total plan to about $2.8 billion in case revenue shortfalls grow.

That's one of the differences that must be resolved before a final package can be approved.

While nearly every part of the budget is being cut, lawmakers are using the opportunity to revisit the budget to increase spending by $2 million for the administration of food stamps and other public assistance.

Dollars shifted from other parts of the budget will pay staff overtime in an effort to reduce delays caused by a deluge of new claims resulting from the same economic downturn that has forced lawmakers to cut other spending.

Florida has added more than 600,000 new food stamp recipients, a 49 percent increase, over the past 20 months, said Department of Children & Families Secretary George Sheldon.

"That's the entire food stamp recipient base of the state of Virginia that we just added," Sheldon said.

The agency's phones have been jammed and applicants are flooding its offices. Officials recently called police to an aid office in Plantation to control the crowd.

"We had long lines, it was warm, tempers got a little strong," Sheldon said, but he added, "There was no threat of violence."

He said it's a new experience for many recipients including thousands who have lost their jobs due to the collapse of the state's construction industry.

"They're plumbers, they're electricians, they're carpenters," Sheldon said. "They're proud and they resist applying for benefits as long as they can, but there's a point where feeding your family takes precedent."

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