Driving home from Concord on Friday afternoon I knew the heavy lifting for the 2014 session of the legislature was over. I had just chaired the last committee of conference meeting for the year, had a report drafted and could count on the conference committee members, three senators and four house members, to “sign off” on Senate Bill 369 by the 4 p.m. deadline.
SB 369 is the bill that puts into law an agreement between 25 of New Hampshire’s 26 hospitals and the state to end the lawsuits filed by some hospitals dealing with Medicaid payments and the constitutionality of the Medicaid Enhancement Tax.
The committee of conference met first on Wednesday. That started a series of meetings called and then recessed, right up through midday on Friday. The on and off again meeting schedule was frustrating, but expected, by conferees and the 50 or so lobbyists and staffers who attended each session.
The Governor attended the first committee session to announce that an agreement between the hospitals and the state had been reached.
Discussions also included the Senate President, Chuck Morse (R-Salem), who insisted that there be a tax reduction in the current 5.5 percent hospitals pay as part of the final deal. While the reduction agreed to is small, having even a modest reduction means the rate cut will be a part of future budget debates in the legislature.
Few citizens will see a personal connection to the agreement between the hospitals and the state, but there are consequences for all of us. A major implication is that the agreement costs the state about $100 million in the next biennial budget. That means budget writers start the process early next year with a $100 million cost factor that can only be met through increased revenues or reductions in spending.
The agreement does mean that money raised from the Medicaid Enhancement Tax will go to pay hospitals for uncompensated care, provided when patients have no insurance or other means of paying, and for other state Medicaid expenses. Money from the tax will no longer be diverted to the state’s general fund to pay for non-health care related costs.
I have been involved in discussions on the Medicaid Enhancement Tax for months. SB 369 is the bill I introduced as the legislative vehicle to be used to put in law the points agreed upon by the state and the hospitals. I have no regrets leaving further MET discussions and debate to others who will serve in the next legislature. It has been hard and tedious work.
The committee of conference process can be harsh. Ten committees of conference failed to agree on a resolution of the issues involved in bills they worked on. With no conference report possible, those bills died. Bill sponsors and stakeholders are disappointed.
Other bills were amended in the committee of conference process and got the needed unanimous support of conferees. In the case of the SB 369, the Medicaid Enhancement Tax bill, Senator Jeannie Forrester (R-Meredith) was a conferee but was not prepared to sign off on the committee report. Senate President Morse replaced her with Senator Sylvia Larson (D-Concord) to join with Senator Lou D’Allesandro (D-Manchester) and me to sign off on the committee report.
The same thing happened on the House side. Representative David Hess (R-Hooksett) was not prepared to sign off, and he was replaced by the speaker’s office to ensure that the committee report had unanimous approval from House conferees.
The House and Senate meet on Wednesday for the likely final time for the 2013-2014 legislature. The only business is the approval by both chambers of the conference committees’ reports. No amendments or changes are permitted.
If both chambers approve a conference committee report, the underlying bill will go to the Governor for signature. If either chamber rejects a committee report, the bill dies. Given the process the legislation has gone through, one can expect that committees of conference reports will all be approved on Wednesday.
With some expressions of thanks and a couple of farewell speeches, the work should be over midday. Legislators will say their good-byes and head home for the summer.
On another note, the threat of rain was in the air, and the temperature seemed to be dropping quickly as Judy and I decided to take a chance and head over to the farmers market in Newport on Friday evening. The rain held off and we walked around the common to say hello to vendors from the past and new ones, too.
While it was clear the farmers market season is far from being in full swing, it is an annual rite to make our first trip to the market with anticipation of being there on a regular basis throughout the season. There are many successful markets scattered across the 24 towns that make up the 8th Senatorial District, and they merit a visit during the summer months.
I have watched the growth in the number of markets and the variety of produce and products sold over the last decade. As important as the commerce that goes on is, summer markets also serve area residents as predictable anchors of community and social interaction that deserve our support.
Senator Bob Odell (R-Newport) represents Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.