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Tucson, Arizona
Tuesday, 25 September 2001

$20M OK'd for entrant medical care

By Howard Fischer

PHOENIX - State lawmakers took the first steps Monday for what one called a "bailout" of Arizona hospitals.

But several were not happy with what they were doing.

With only minor dissent, the House voted 53-4 to set aside $20 million through the middle of 2003 to pay hospitals and others for care they provide to illegal entrants. The measure now goes to the Senate.

Even assuming final Senate approval, though, that doesn't mean the program will remain alive.

Lawmakers will be back in November to find ways to slash the budget in the face of a potential $800 million shortfall. And Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said there will be no "sacred cows" - including this program.

Federal law forbids health care providers from turning away anyone who needs emergency care, regardless of ability to pay or citizenship. Until now, the state has agreed to reimburse hospitals for costs incurred for those who live in the state whose income meets income standards.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers repealed the law - and the funding - after the Federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid agreed in January to begin picking up the cost, effective when the new federal budget year begins Oct. 1. But federal officials have since concluded they cannot legally do that.

Hospital lobbyists and others converged on the Capitol to convince lawmakers they need to continue the program.

Knaperek said that with the Oct. 1 deadline, this isn't the time to debate the issue.

But she remains unconvinced this program should have higher priority than others as lawmakers look for ways to deal with sagging state tax revenues.

"The hospitals aren't showing us that indeed they're in trouble," she said. "Because really what this is is a bailout of providers."

Laurie Lange, lobbyist for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said the financial problems are real.

"About 40 percent of hospitals in Arizona lost money on operations," she said.

Lange acknowledged that hospitals are expected to provide some charitable services.

"(But) you can't do that without some reimbursement to cover your cost," she said.

For Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, the issue was more a question of ideology.

"I can't support this bill or do anything that would support and aid and foster the continual flow of people illegally into this country under these circumstances," he said.