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Winners and losers

The key to helping the poor: money

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It's been a bad year for Georgia's needy people.

Lawmakers cut about $50 million worth of funds for dozens of programs.

Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of low-income and physically and mentally disabled Georgians will be kicked in the butt when the new budget is implemented in July.

But it's not because health care and consumer advocates didn't work to fight the cuts. It's that other wealthier groups got a good dose of the money they asked for.

Linda Lowe, a consumer health advocate and lobbyist, has been among the most active for the past two decades.

The cuts "hurt people," Lowe says. "It's wrong to do it. It's hurting people when they are down already because of the economy."

It took Lowe three years of lobbying to lower the state's Medicaid requirements to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, allowing more children to get Medicaid for free than to pay for the state's PeachCare For Kids health program.

Right before it was going to go into effect, Gov. Roy Barnes froze the funds citing fiscal conservancy during hard times.

Lowe also worked for years to lengthen by a year Medicaid coverage for Georgians who get jobs after being on welfare. It's ridiculous, she says, to think that someone who was on welfare will land a job with full healthcare coverage after just one year of employment. The General Assembly approved money to do just that in 2000. And again, when the recession came on, Barnes, needing to tighten the state's purse strings, froze the funds.

This year, one of the worst in state history for layoffs, lawmakers cut the funds for that second year of coverage, about $4.5 million.

The PeachCare For Kids program was allocated $27 million -- administrators asked for $32 million -- and for the first time will have to use funds from the next fiscal year to pay for coverage provided in the previous fiscal year. In other words, about $5 million worth of claims filed at the end of fiscal year 2003 will have to be paid for with fiscal year 2004 funds, according to Department of Community Health spokesman Martin Smith.

It would have been worse if it weren't for Rep. Mickey Channell, D-Greensboro, who chairs the budget subcommittee that funds Community Health. "We were able to get almost $7 million of state money [back into PeachCare For Kids], so we were able to get over and above what the governor had recommended," Channell says. "Sure, I would have liked to have seen more money [go into the program]. At the end of the day, it's the collective judgment of the General Assembly and it's part of the process.

Medicaid coverage and $3.5 million for county health departments statewide. The cut that really riles Lowe is the $1.9 million that won't go into Babies Born Healthy, which gives pre-natal care to immigrants who don't qualify for Medicaid.

In all, Lowe has identified just under $50 million in human services cuts to the Department of Community Health, Department of Labor and Department of Human Resources.

Some of that money, like the $2 million needed for Babies Born Healthy, or the $4.6 million needed to give former welfare recipients health care, could have come from a lot of different places.

The cuts were "unnecessary," Lowe says.

She says the money could come from the state's $375 million rainy day fund. During the session, she gave lawmakers information showing it would only take 6.7 percent of the rainy day fund to prevent the $50 million in cuts.

"Isn't a rainy day fund supposed to be used when state services are threatened?" Lowe says. "And these are services for some of the most needy in the state."

The legislators gave $65 million of tobacco money, originally meant for health care and smoking prevention, to the OneGeorgia Authority.

But what's more interesting is that another health group, nursing homes, did get an extra little something this year. It's also interesting that nursing homes are one of the most connected human-services-related groups.

The entire time lawmakers were tinkering with the Department of Community Health's budget, nursing homes operators were scheduled to get $11.9 million -- that's the figure Barnes put in the budget and what the House and Senate agreed on.

But during conference committee meetings, that number got bumped up $5 million to $17 million. The extra money, according to the budget, is to cover two years of inflation instead of just one.

Now is probably a good time to point out that lobbyists for the Georgia Nursing Home Association spent $4,984 wining and dining legislators in 2001 and 2002. They took an entire subcommittee on Medicaid appropriations, House Speaker Tom Murphy and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry Coleman to Angelo and Maxie's. Other lawmakers were treated to Maggiano's and Alfredo's.

The group contributed more than $56,000 to campaigns and political parties in 2001, according to the association's most recent report to the state Secretary of State.

There's nothing wrong with that kind of stuff -- it is politics after all. But it does show what separates the haves (nursing home operators) from the have-nots (immigrants, former welfare recipients struggling with their new jobs).

michael.wall@creativeloafing.com

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