Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014

“A bonfire of billions,” Budget deal nears final passage, Amnesty dollars debated, “Equal Pay” bill deferred by Senate committee, and More Insurers plan to participate in exchange marketplace. 13 million — The estimate for next year’s total enrollment in the private insurance healthcare marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act. (Source: The New York Times)

“A bonfire of billions”
The Baton Rouge Advocate, in its strongest editorial to date on the subject, added its voice to those who say Louisiana lawmakers made a costly mistake by rejecting an opportunity to extend health care coverage to more than 240,000 low-income adults.

“Leave aside the moral dimension, although that is huge. It is amazing that legislators, generally pretty well-off themselves, seem immune to the pain that can afflict people working in low-wage jobs and unable to afford health care. But what is the point of the financial idiocy of turning down such a generous grant? Across state government, Republican lawmakers would be up in arms if the state failed to take advantage of federal programs that stretch state dollars for valuable services.”

Budget deal nears final passage
The state’s $25 billion operating budget for next year drew closer to final passage on Wednesday, when the full Senate approved the spending plan after shuffling money around and adding back money for people with disabilities. “The spending plan includes new money for services to help the disabled, higher education and public schools,” The Associated Press reports. “Rank-and-file state workers would get a pay raise, but would also face new premium hikes for health insurance. More than 1,000 state jobs would be cut, though most are vacant.

“Many of the across-the-board cuts proposed by the House for contracts, overtime pay and vacant positions were stripped by senators who voted 37-1 for the reworked budget bill after less than two hours of debate.”

The budget relies on $70 million in projected “savings” outlined by a state consultant, and includes nearly $1 billion in spending that won’t be available next year. The budget bill now goes back to the House, which can either accept the Senate’s version or send it into a House-Senate compromise committee.

Amnesty dollars debated
The Senate created a new tax amnesty program Wednesday, and immediately began spending the proceeds even though money is far from guaranteed. Legislators think they can collect at least $100 million from tax scofflaws next year by forgiving some penalties and interest, and are eager to spend that money on their pet priorities. Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, wants to direct the dollars to road projects, while Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette proposed setting aside funds for a crime lab in Acadiana. In the end, a proposal by Sen. Karen Cater Peterson, D – New Orleans prevailed. Her amendment dedicates the first $100 million collected from the program to the general fund, the next $4 million to the Louisiana Regional Leadership Council to be used for economic development purposes and the next $25 million collected to higher education.

 “Equal Pay” bill deferred by Senate committee
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee voted 4-3 to defer an equal pay bill that would “stress the need for equal pay and restate existing federal gender discrimination law but provided no new teeth to enforce pay equality.” Critics of the measure, supported by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, cited concerns that the bill was a feel-good measure that did nothing to address the fact that women often get paid less for performing the same jobs as their male counterparts. “This bill will not accomplish its goal,” said Julie Schwam Harris, co-chair of Legislative Agenda for Women. “It’s going to confuse and distract … The goal of equal pay would be hurt by the passage of this bill.” An earlier measure, SB 334 by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, which would have made intentional gender-based pay discrimination illegal for private businesses, died on the House floor earlier this session.

More Insurers plan to participate in exchange marketplace
Health insurers are taking an increased interest in the health marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, the New York Times reports. UnitedHealth Group and Cigna are two of many who have indicated they will participate in the exchange, while questions still remain about premiums that groups will be able to charge under the law.

“Federal officials said they were heartened by the continued interest from insurers. ‘We are still early in the process but it’s a positive sign that after just one open enrollment season we are already seeing new entrants and more competition in the marketplace,’ said Erin Shields Britt, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.”  

13 million — The estimate for next year’s total enrollment in the private insurance healthcare marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act. (Source: The New York Times)