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State takes burden of health care off shoulders of local government

Under the budget plan approved by the Legislature, the state will pay 50 percent of local expenditures for the Family Health Plus Program starting Jan. 1. By next year, the state will pick up 100 percent of the local cost for the state-mandated program, with an estimated savings for counties of more than $450 million over the next two years.Reforms to the Family Health Plus Program, a public health insurance program for adults who do not qualify for regular Medicaid, also include the institution of co-payments for prescription drugs, doctor visits and hospital stays and lowering the income threshold for eligibility.The health care budget, part of the much-delayed overall state appropriations package for the fiscal year that started April 1, passed the Senate in a 53-6 vote and the Assembly in a 139-9 vote. It must still be signed by Republican Gov. George Pataki, who received the budget last Thursday. He has until Tuesday to sign or veto the legislation."One of the critical issues we have is that Medicaid expenditures at the county level have been growing at a ridiculous rate," said state Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights), who voted against the health-care budget because he said it did not provide enough funding. "The entire property tax in Albany goes to Medicaid."Medicaid is a state-mandated program, but in New York a significant portion of the cost is picked up at the county level. The local expenditure for Medicaid programs has been growing at a rate of more 10.3 percent per year, according to figures from the state Senate.Since 2003, when the New York State Association of Counties made it its highest priority, local officials have been clamoring for relief.State Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette (D-Jackson Heights) said maintaining coverage levels and picking up the cost of the program made sense for the state. Without adequate Medicaid care, he said, people might seek routine treatment in emergency rooms instead of doctors' offices."It's either pay me now or pay me later," Lafayette said.Meanwhile, the Legislature's budget plan calls for patients to start covering a portion of the cost of their doctor visits."I think there should be a co-payment of some sort in a limited fashion so that it makes it mean something," Sabini said.The legislation also lowers the income eligibility threshold to 150 percent of the federal poverty level. A family of three earning less than $15,670 per year is considered to be living below the poverty level.Despite the lengthy wrangling, the budget, Lafayette said, differs little from last year's."Sometimes there's a victory in not making things worse," he said.Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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