Senate adds funds for children with disabilities to midyear budget

ATLANTA - Responding to an outcry from parents of children with severe disabilities, the Senate Wednesday set aside $3.6 million in the state's midyear budget to keep families from being thrown off of Medicaid.

The money would go toward the Katie Beckett waiver, a program for children with disabilities including Down syndrome and autism from families with incomes too high to qualify for basic Medicaid or PeachCare.

More than 1,600 Georgia children have been cut from the program in the last four months because of a crackdown on eligibility requirements, said Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, who proposed the amendment to Gov. Sonny Perdue's $17.8 billion midyear budget request.

"The families who ... need this program are hurting,'' Thomas told her Senate colleagues. "They feel all hope is lost because of what we've done in this state.''

The midyear budget, which passed 52-1, would add about $445 million to the 2006 spending plan the legislature approved almost a year ago. It would cover state spending through the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

A three-member conference committee will now begin negotiations with House conferees to work out differences between the budget the Senate approved Wednesday and the version the House adopted two weeks ago.

Both sides have agreed on the largest chunk of new spending, nearly $145 million recommended by Perdue to cover the growth in school enrollment.

The House and Senate, however, disagree with $1.1 million in spending the governor requested to help cover the costs of a planned overhaul of Georgia's Medicaid program.

"This Medicaid modernization is in a holding pattern,'' said Sen. Greg Goggans, R-Douglas, chairman of the Senate's budget subcommittee on health care issues. "We felt this money could be used better in other places.''

Senators also went along with a House proposal to give the State Ethics Commission $500,000 to help the agency handle the significantly larger workload it was assigned by the ethics legislation enacted by the General Assembly last year.

The Senate put its own stamp on the midyear budget with some additions of its own, including $500,000 to help counties develop courthouse security plans, $250,000 to open a trade office in China and $180,000 to raise sunken boats off the coast.

Senators also added a $75 million bond package for a list of prospective economic development projects. The list was not revealed because the projects are uncertain.

"If we do not get these projects, these bonds will not be sold,'' said Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But the money for the Katie Beckett waiver was the most unusual change because floor amendments to budgets rarely gain approval.

Katie Beckett parents, who have been an active force at the Capitol for several years, began to deluge lawmakers with complaints several months ago when the state began tightening eligibility requirements.

The state Department of Community Health began applying stricter criteria after the federal government took Georgia to task for not following eligibility guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Families who had come to rely on the program to help cover the costs of expensive medications and therapy regimens were suddenly denied when their annual renewals came up.

"This has created an enormous financial hardship for families already coping with stress,'' Thomas said.

Republican leaders hesitated initially at Thomas' proposal because her amendment called for taking the $3.6 million from bond projects. But GOP leaders quickly found another source for the money - prepaid bond interest - and the Senate then approved the funding unanimously.