Nashua Telegraph: Group looks at Medicaid
By Kevin Landrigan
So we’re off and crawling before the 11-member commission to study whether to expand Medicaid in New Hampshire.
There’s no surprise there since A) Many of its members not in the Legislature had very little involvement with Medicaid and its connection to the state budget and B) Both factions on this panel are wary of trying to throw their weight around.
It fell to the Department of Health and Human Services to give a three-hour tutorial to the commission on the existing program.
This week we move on at least to the substance of what this commission is all about – namely the Obamacare program to extend Medicaid coverage to about 25,000 low-income adults.
According to independent studies, the other 35,000 or so who would join Medicaid under this expansion already have some form of private coverage.
Keep in mind that, according to the Kaiser Foundation, New Hampshire has a higher percentage of residents with private insurance (61 percent) than any state in the nation.
Meanwhile, though they haven’t gotten very far, there were glimpses into how testy the negotiations on this panel (5-4 Democratic advantage with two, non-voting members) will become at crunch time.
Partisan Democrats close to these talks accuse, under their breath, GOP members like Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford and Josiah Bartlett Center director Charles Arlinghaus of creating the building blocks for an ideological war against a Medicaid program they view as too bloated and too bureaucratic. Meanwhile, GOP leaders are under the assumption – true or not – that the Democratic bloc will be unwilling to tinker with the expansion beyond the outline Gov. Maggie Hassan first proposed in her state budget message last February.
In the coming weeks, watch for GOP members to try and push the commission towards an Arkansas style program that fully expands coverage but allows many in the expanded Medicaid group to purchase private insurance.
A July 30 session to offer public comment may supply some of that ammo but at this early stage, it’s unlikely to push this commission in one direction or the next.
What could begin to break the log jam is that undetermined date, likely next month, when federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services will appear before the commission to spell out what kind of Medicaid waivers they could be willing to accept.
In the meantime this battle is really about what concessions might be required to win the hearts and minds of only two Senate Republicans and clearly Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, is the first choice of Democratic leaders.
Even if Stiles came along, however, the second GOP vote will be much harder to come by.
Some Democratic leaders assumed Senate Ways and Means Chairman Robert Odell, R-Lempster, would ultimately come above.
However sources confirm that during private, Senate GOP caucuses, Odell strongly backed the position of President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, that Medicaid expansion should come later, not sooner, if at all.
Hassan gets to cut a tax
Gov. Maggie Hassan got to preside over the first tax cut of her administration as jobless taxes charged to employers were shaved downward for the second time in two years.
“With our economy continuing to show signs of improvement, we are now able to provide additional relief to businesses and those workers still struggling to secure employment,’’ Hassan said.
“I thank the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council for their support of these steps to lower taxes for employers and provide added support for our working families.”
Leave it to fiscal conservatives to note this tax cut ended an employer tax increase Hassan had sponsored as Senate majority leader in 2009.
“At the time of then-Senator Hassan’s massive tax increase on employers, there were calls for reforming the unemployment insurance system, not simply hiking the taxes,” said Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity.
“However, Hassan rammed through a huge new job-killing payroll tax increase at a time when unemployment was already high. Now, Governor Hassan is taking credit for the fact that some of her tax increases are being scaled back. This is truly political grandstanding at its worst.”
Hassan Communications Director Marc Goldberg responded that the unemployment insurance tax reform had strong, bipartisan support to rescue a benefits fund drained by higher employment during the recession.
“During her time in the state Senate, while facing the worst economic downturn in decades, the Governor joined with Republicans and Democrats, business leaders and workers, to save the unemployment system from bankruptcy and to prevent increased federal taxes on businesses,’’ Goldberg said in a statement.
It’s true most House Republicans opposed this jobless tax increase package even though it had the backing of a broad range of business groups from the Business & Industry Association and local chambers of commerce to BAE Systems Inc. of Nashua.
Business groups stepped up because the fund balance had sunk so low the state would have had to borrow from the federal government to shore it up.
In addition, financially-solid firms liked the package because it forced companies to pay higher taxes if they repeatedly had made us of jobless benefits.
The House vote was 244-125.
But in the Senate, it passed by a voice vote with no GOP opposition.
Meanwhile, because the benefit fund is now solvent for the foreseeable future, Employment Security Commissioner George Copadis will ask the Legislature to give jobless workers the first increase in weekly benefits in 11 years.
If approved most of the unemployed (about 60 percent) would get a 1.32 percent hike in benefits costing the jobless fund $1.3 million a year.
“Our average weekly benefit amount is near the bottom in New England, and while we did add some additional tiers in 2006, the rates have not been increased since 2002,’’ Copadis said.
We bring you this controversy as a small reminder that Hassan’s inevitable, re-election bid is less than a year away and the GOP attack team is already girding for any fight they can find with her.
Mediation for union
A mediator will begin next week the task of trying to end an impasse between Gov. Hassan’s administration and the State Employees Association.
SEA negotiators had signed on to a deal that gave employees 6 percent raises over the next two years in return for having to pay an annual deductible on their health care coverage for the first time.
The SEA’s governing body rejected the agreement, triggering renewed talks that over the past few weeks went nowhere.
The State Troopers Association rejected the deal while two smaller unions endorsed it, those that represent correction officers, liquor commission enforcers and the Fish and Game Department.
Hassan’s negotiators clearly held the upper hand here with a signed, two-year state budget based on the first deal that awards $38.4 million in wages for state, legislative and judicial employees for $10.3 million in “savings,’’ aka higher employee costs.
SEA President Diana Lacey said the union wants a new agreement to delay higher deductibles for one year as they wipe out the pay raise for all but the highest-paid state workers.
The mediator’s task: Find a middle ground that gives state employees some breathing room while not financially costing state taxpayers more in the short term.
Good luck with that.
Shaheen misses meeting
It sure wasn’t pretty or quick but Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, sought to get a nasty controversy behind her, admitting she missed a must-attend meeting of the Senate on filibuster reform because was at a New York fund-raiser for her reelection campaign.
Republican State Chairman Jennifer Horn of Nashua seized on Shaheen as the only, no-show Democrat and one of only two senators to miss the meeting, along with potential 2016 GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio, R-FL.
Right away, Rubio copped to a “family commitment’’ for missing the meeting.
At the end of the day, it was just a hiccup for Shaheen who stands in pretty good position without a declared Republican opponent and $2.5 million in the bank.
The vote she missed was procedural, literally a taking of attendance of who was there, and Shaheen has a 98 percent attendance rate in the Senate.
And hours after that historic meeting of the entire Senate, negotiators hours later announced they had reached an agreement.
Senate Democratic leaders agreed to withdraw changing filibuster rules in return for getting Republicans to let several Obama administration appointments to come to the Senate for a final vote.
Politically, a small foul with no harm. Ironically now it’s some conservative Republicans who are grousing that they gave up too much in the bargain, letting Obama get his appointments without any guarantee that Senate Democrats could bring up changing the filibuster in the future.
Bragdon has bills waiting
Timing is everything.
About 40 bills from the 2013 session are with Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, including those to legalize the use of medical marijuana and to continue to honor college student cards under the Voter ID law.
House Speaker Terie Norelli, R-Portsmouth, moved all of them off her desk onto Bragdon’s late last week. Bragdon had been at the Statehouse every day through mid-July until he recently took a few days off from Concord.
Once Bragdon comes in, they all go to Gov. Hassan to wrap up the 2013 issue agenda.
Except of course for those vetoes from Hassan, that will need lawmakers to return and take up by year’s end.
Market Basket’s history
The battle over control of the Market Basket empire has an interesting political back story with plenty of New Hampshire overtones.
The chain was founded by Lowell brothers Telemachas “Mike’’ and George Demoulas that equally owned the company and bought their first store in the early 1950s for $15,000.
By 2004, the supermarket chain was the 210th most lucrative, family-run business in the world.
Since the 1971 death of George to a gun attack in Greece, the two families have been a civil war over control of the company.
George’s side, led by Arthur S., believe they have the shares to oust Mike’s son, Arthur T., who now runs the business.
Mike Demoulas emerged as a significant, political power broker in Lowell during the rebirth of Lowell in the 1970s and 1980s. He particularly took a shine to a young City Councilor (and fellow Greek) Paul Tsongas.
The personal and financial support Demoulas would deliver helped Tsongas go on to become a congressman, US senator and a serious contender for the presidential nomination. Tsongas lost to President Bill Clinton in 1992.
Where did Tsongas go when he began building a presidential campaign in 1991? To a thriving and admiring Greek community in Nashua. Tsongas died of lymphoma in 1997, Mike Demoulas passed away in 2003 but for all this bitter infighting over control of Market Basket, it’s worth noting the lasting legacy both left behind in the Mill City.