House Gives Preliminary Approval to Medicaid Changes

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(Host) After more than five hours of debate, the Vermont House Wednesday gave its preliminary approval to a Medicaid reform bill. The vote on the bill was 80 to 64. During its debate, the House rejected a plan to restore some budget cuts by raising the cigarette tax by 67 cents.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The legislation was drafted to try to deal with huge increases in the state’s Medicaid budget. The key issue facing the House was whether or not the state cigarette tax should be increased significantly to provide new money to restore funds for many parts of the Medicaid program.

The bill, as proposed by the House Appropriations Committee, includes new co-payments and as much as a $1,000 deductible for some of the low and middle income people who are eligible for the state’s drug assistance program. It also scales back the benefits available in the state’s health insurance program for uninsured Vermonters.

The bill does include a 36 cent increase in the state cigarette tax. Rutland representative Cheryl Hooker urged House members to increase the cigarette tax to 67 cents to help restore some of the cuts in the bill:

(Hooker) "It’s been stated, Mr. Speaker, that the tobacco tax is blatantly unfair, that it singles out a politically vulnerable segment of consumers to pay what is clearly a disproportionate share of the public burden. I contend, Mr. Speaker, that these Medicaid cuts place the burden of balancing the state’s budget on the backs of an even smaller group ¿ the oldest frailest and most critically ill Vermonters."

(Kinzel) But Vernon representative Patricia O’Donnell, who is a member of the Appropriations Committee, opposed a higher cigarette tax because O’Donnell said the cuts are needed to provide fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program:

(O’Donnell) "You want to talk about the cigarette tax? Let’s be honest about the cigarette tax. It’s a cop out. It’s our way of paying for this program because we can’t say, ‘Let’s raise the income tax. Let’s raise the property taxes.’ Because our people are taxed out, so what’s the easiest source? We find that’s the cigarette tax ¿ a small group of people, no lobby in force here in Montpelier. Let’s raise that tax and no one will know the difference. Except for we’ve raised this tax, put all these programs back and in 18 months we’re still bankrupt. We still have a program we cannot afford."

(Kinzel) The House defeated the amendment by a vote of 86 to 58. The measure is expected to come up for final approval in the House on Thursday.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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