07/17/06 — Officials: No help coming to cover Medicaid

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Officials: No help coming to cover Medicaid

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on July 17, 2006 1:47 PM

If Wayne County residents expected to see relief from footing the bill of rising Medicaid costs after learning about the state's $2.4 billion surplus, they can think again, county officials said.

"This was an opportunity to act and to distribute the cost across the state in a fair amount. I hate to say it, but I think we're stuck with this bill for a long time," County Manager Lee Smith said.

North Carolina is the only state that requires its counties to pay for all Medicaid services. For Wayne County, that equals about $7.5 million, or about 15 cents on the property tax rate.

County officials said they expect the cost to increase even more in the future. About 22 percent of the county's residents are eligible for Medicaid. As more Baby Boomers age and retire, the number of eligible recipients will increase -- along with the price.

The commissioners had originally hoped that the North Carolina General Assembly would provide a cap on rising Medicaid costs for counties, but Smith said the county will have to settle for assistance for only one year.

"As far as a Medicaid cap, if they couldn't do it now with that surplus, they're never going to do it," Smith said.

The assistance from the state is expected to be about $100,000, Smith said, which is much lower than the $1 million needed to offset the rising Medicaid costs.

If legislators had provided more assistance or a cap on rising costs, Commissioner Efton Sager said the county could focus more on other local needs.

"It's the biggest drain we've got (on our budget). We can't even help other services like we would like to because of that burden," Sager said.

One such service is the education of Wayne County students. Like many counties across the state, Wayne spends more on Medicaid than for school facilities, Sager said.

Luckily, Sager said, the county has worked over the past several years to build its fund balance to be able to afford the school's capital needs. With no state support, though, county governments are forced to consider raising taxes.

"After all, any time you can pass the buck of a problem to the local level, the Senate can always say, 'We did not raise your taxes. The counties did,'" Sager said.