BY: B. Keith Plunkett @Keithplunkett
It is said that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s oftentimes a little less flattering, too. Such is the case with the Medicaid Special Session held last week at the State Capitol.

Unity is the word of the week from Republicans–ALMOST all Republicans–but the truth is the session wasn’t all smiles, cooperation and unity of purpose. In fact, it was a tense two days that culminated in a stare down between the Speaker and the Lt. Governor over whether or not a repealer would be added back to a Medicaid authorization bill.

I’ve spoken to dozens of officials in the aftermath of the session, and most descriptions of what went down are virtually the same: bizarre, unnecessary and downright childish.

The fight over adding the repealer back to the authorization bill, a move supported by Democrats in the House and Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, was the difference between the legislators leaving early afternoon on Friday and leaving late in the evening. They left late in the evening.

Conservatives across the state capitol banded together early in the session to state clearly their objections to adding repealer language to the bills that authorized and funded the Medicaid program. The consensus being that any repealer would cause another Medicaid fight in 2014 over expansion, and unnecessarily threaten coverage to the blind, disabled, and nursing home patients who currently rely on the program. In other words, if the repealer language was allowed, it would set the stage for a renewed battle on the same ObamaCare expansion next year–same time, same place, same arguments.

Democrats reasoning for that is clear. They want expansion. The Lt. Governor’s reasons are a little more fuzzy. But, Reeves had been hinting for weeks at his support for a renewed Medicaid expansion debate in 2014.

For their part, the Speaker, Governor Phil Bryant, and both the House and Senate Conservative Coalitions had firmly planted their flag, they would not support language placed in the bills that might cause this same debacle again next year.

The House Conservative Coalition met early with Speaker Philip Gunn and vowed to remain resolute against any attempts, and HB 1 and HB 2 sailed through the House with no amendments and no repealers.

Next up was the Senate. As the debate was about to begin, all indications were that a repealer would be added by senate leadership, forcing a showdown. As the debate began I sat watching in the Senate gallery, and my phone buzzed with an email. The newly formed Senate Conservative Coalition had released a statement clearly stating their opposition to any repealer language in the authorization bill.

The “Kabuki Dance” that followed on the Senate floor was interesting to watch.

Eyes gazed down at phones and laptops, then up to scan the room. Nods were given. The Lt. Governor’s Chief of Staff approached the head of the room and began an aside with Reeves, then the President Pro Tem approached and joined the discussion. After a minute, the huddle broke. More nods across the room.

What followed was a call from the lectern of the Senate by the Lt. Governor’s chiefs, Senators Terry Burton, Terry Brown, and Dean Kirby, to reject attempts to add the repealer language, adding what seemed like an odd statement at the time: “You will get your chance to add the repealer.”

After that, things went quickly in the Senate as they had in the House. Some attempts at inserting expansion language were quickly debated and shot down. The Senate adjourned and scheduled to reconvene at 2:30 for what most thought would be an expanded call from the Governor to pass the technical bill to authorize spending for the myriad of Medicaid details. At that point, it should have been finished quickly and efficiently to end the whole affair.

But, that’s not what happened.

The Lt. Governor had not given up on the repealer and refused to release the authorization bills to the Governor. Negotiations began between the Speaker, Governor and Lt. Governor and things got ugly. Capitol sources tell me it got REALLY ugly; kindergarten playground kind of ugly.

Through meetings over the course of the next several hours, Speaker Philip Gunn and the House Conservative Coalition held their ground, refusing to budge an inch on the repealer. House and Senate Coalition members traded information on the negotiations and all decided to stand strong. In the end, Lt. Governor Reeves dropped the “bucket of water he was carrying” and began looking for a way out.

Senate rules are a bit more lax on what is allowed in a special session. The Lt. Governor has a little more leeway on deciding what is and is not germane to the Governor’s call. With that in mind–and a jet to catch to take him to the National Lt. Governor’s Conference in Boston–Reeves pulled back the bills he had been sitting on and added the technical language with the repealer worded in such a way that it would not affect Medicaid authorization.

He then brought it to the Senate floor for a vote with his chiefs attempting to save face by pushing the story that this was necessary to keep Speaker Gunn from losing his Speakership.

What?!

Yep. I know. In a word “bizarre”.

The Senate quickly voted to adjourn and go home, throwing it all back in the lap of the House for a do-or-die vote. Many legislators believe the senate leadership fully expected the House to kill the bill and the entire thing would fall apart, thereby allowing Speaker Gunn and the House Conservatives to take the blame.

But once again, the House Conservative Coalition stood strong and Speaker Gunn rallied the troops. With the Governor standing at the back of the chamber, the House passed the bill ending the whole sordid affair.

Not exactly the narrative you’ve heard up until now is it?

The truth is indeed stranger–and uglier–than fiction.

It wasn’t pretty. But in the end, the deal got done. The Medicaid beneficiaries have a little peace of mind knowing they won’t be used as pawns in another fight next year. And, conservatives can be proud of a genuine team effort to reject a costly expansion, paving the way for serious discussion of Medicaid reform in 2014.

As they say, “all is well that ends well” . . .

at least that is what they say.

About Keith: Keith Plunkett has worked on communications issues with a range of public officials from aldermen to Congressmen, and a variety of businesses, governmental agencies and non-profits. He serves or has served as a board member of several non-profit, civic and political organizations. Contact him by going to HorizonMediaMarketing.com or follow him on Twitter @Keithplunkett

8 thoughts on “PLUNKETT: Medicaid Session truth is not pretty, but the deal got done.

  1. In your opinion why does Reeves want the repealer language? What does it buy him to have this all play out again next year?

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