A controversial bill to cut what the state pays doctors and hospitals to treat the poor and disabled won a key approval today from the House of Representatives by a 67 to 45 vote.
After a third, normally perfunctory approval the bill soon will head to Gov. Nikki Haley's desk for her signature.
Haley has said she wants the rates cut as part of the state's effort to balance its budget.
The bill, which would enact a 3 percent across-the-board cut for doctors when they see Medicaid patients, would allow the state's deficit-running Medicaid agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, to save about $70,000 a day between its implementation and June 30.
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Starting July 1, House members already have given the state's health agency permission to make unspecified cuts in state payments to hospitals and doctors, part of an effort to save another $125 million.
Thursday, House Democrats introduced about 40 amendments in an effort to slow down or stop the bill. They unsuccessfully argued the bill will devastate rural hospitals and shut out poor patients from receiving much-needed health-care services.
"We're talking about laying off (hospital workers.) We're talking about making poor people drive 30, 40 miles for emergency care," said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, whose district includes Bamberg County Hospital, which is already running a deficit. "It's immoral."
Health industry groups have estimated from 2,000 to 6,000 health-care workers could lose their jobs because of the budget cuts. State officials have said they expect no job losses.
House Democratic Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, argued the bill has a hidden cost because about $3 in federal funding is lost for each dollar the state does not spend on Medicaid.
Gov. Haley and Health and Human Services officials have said the rate cut is necessary because of state budget cuts and the state's increasing number of poor people qualifying for Medicaid.
The state already has approved a $200 million bailout package for Health and Human Services offset its $225 deficit for this fiscal year, which ends June 30. The agency blames that deficit on increasing Medicaid rolls due to the now-ended Great Recession.
"No one is going to be denied medical services because of cuts," said state Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens. "Everyone has been affected by (state budget) cuts, everybody but the providers who were spared."