Monday, February 28, 2011

Health, Human Services sees reduction in Fraud

The final phase of the budget is the time when constituent service is almost non-stop. We had 417 contacts this week, which is very near to an all time record. In the last five or six years, we have grown from around a hundred calls, emails, and letters a week to an average of between three and four hundred. While this is a fairly dramatic escalation in our workload, I didn’t get into politics because I thought it was effortless.

On the contrary, the reason I produce this column is to try and get you, the resident voter, to be more involved in the affairs of your district and your state. As your representative, I simply must hear from you regularly and in some detail if I am to place your ideas before the General Assembly. My colleagues at the statehouse, especially the ones I like and admire, are downright envious at the level of constituent involvement that 417 contacts represent.

Another reason I need to have extensive idea exchange with you is that a portion of what you read in the various media is incomplete or without proper context. It’s not that the newspapers, magazines and the radio producers are bad people or don’t do a good job-- often they are good people and they usually do a pretty fair job. It is because much of what we do is so detailed, so freighted with tradition or history, or (I’m embarrassed to admit) sometimes so seemingly irrational, that I can best explain it to you on the phone, or by email, or preferably when you come by the office and we chat about it. Consequently, the more I hear from you, the better job I can do.

Since much of what you wanted to hear about this week was concerning Health and Human Services, let me talk numbers. The Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) had a final budget forecast of $5,913,933,851, less the transfer of the tax relief fund of $545,000,000, leaving us $5,368,000,000, more or less. Out of that, the Capital Reserve Fund is $110,000,000 and the Contingency Reserve Fund is $71,000,000 with a BEA adjustment to around $68,000,000.

That makes the top line somewhere north of $5 billion. My subcommittee of Ways and Means is requesting Health and Human Services receive roughly $1.1 billion in state general appropriations, which is an increase of $435,000,000 over the current appropriation. The HHS top line number is reduced by annualizations and the $227,000,000 deficit from last year and around $4.5 million in IT expenditures required by the feds. We were then able to add nearly $90 million through a huge number of reforms in cash flow management, procurement savings, implementation of prior authorization for certain drugs, aggressive managed care capitations, as well as much more aggressive enforcement of fraud and abuse collections. Much of the credit for these innovations and administrative adjustments goes to Tony Keck, the new head of HHS about whom I wrote some time ago.

The fraud and abuse saving may be even higher if a measure put in by your representative becomes law. It mandates the prominent placement of a fraud hotline number where WIC vouchers and food stamps are used. If you see fraud or abuse, use the number. More times than not, the infraction is about evolving regulations, but oversight is certainly a deterrent to abuse.

Sorry about all the numbers. I look at them every day and they still make my head hurt.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Budget cutting has human cost

Bluffton Today

As the budget portion of the legislative session is winding down, we are hearing from quite a number of you; specifically, 412 contacts last week. With significantly fewer dollars to spend, local recipients of state funding are justifiably concerned over what they may expect in the next fiscal year. My friend Jeannie Owens at Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, The Children’s Advocacy, and Rape Crisis Center makes a very compelling case for being held harmless in the current round of budgeting.

The same is true for the folks at Health and Human Services, our hardworking school boards, as well as the Medicaid administrators. We get that the needs are serious and growing. We also get that when you only have a set amount of resources, without recourse to deficit spending, sometimes even the most worthy features of our system will be diminished. I am painfully aware that there are human consequences to what we do here. Maybe some can look at this process as some kind of bookkeeping exercise, but your representative is not one of them.

I know that three speech therapy sessions a week for an autistic child makes for more progress than only one session. I know that enough proper catheters and pressure bandages for the bed-bound Medicaid patient are crucial for any kind of quality of life. I get it. What I also know is that I can’t let the saddening particulars of retrenchment blind me to the absolute necessity of organizing our finances to do the most with what we have, while at the same time working on reforming and reorganizing our system to provide more efficient and cost-effective service to those that depend on us.

There is some good news on the Education Finance Act (EFA) front, particularly with regard to the “taxpayers ability to pay” feature that has essentially cut Beaufort County out for so long. I have been able to shepherd a package of changes to the EFA through subcommittee and full committee to a point where we have a very good shot at repatriating a fair number of school tax dollars back to Beaufort County schools, both charter and traditional. Right now, we are looking at an additional $3 million to $7 million in taxes coming back to our schools.

Admittedly, even the higher number is not a large percentage of our current school expenditure. It is, however, a start. It is also a precedent-setting change that we can build on. It is also something that your representative and your delegation have pledged to accomplish. It is a significant and important aspect of our donor status relative to other counties that must be reversed in the interest of parity and fairness. I was pleased to receive visits to the State House from Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, Councilman Oliver Brown and Bluffton Town Manager Anthony Barrett.

We also had a contingent from Hilton Head Island including Councilman George Williams, Councilwoman Kim Likens and Hilton Head Town Manager Steve Riley. The conversation was productive and had to do largely with those many issues that two municipalities as closely associated as Bluffton and Hilton Head seem to produce.

One topic of interest was the future of the Heritage, and what role, if any, there might be for the state in preserving this critical job-creating, tourism dynamo. There are a few Heritage pots boiling, and I will report as soon as there is anything promising.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Constituents provide legislative insight

Bluffton Today

We are still working on our backlog of constituent contacts from last week, in addition to the 412 new calls we had this week. While the bulk of our e-mail challenges both here and in Columbia have been sorted out, we appreciate your patience in allowing us to catch up. Kathy and Mary handle the office and communications duties during session, and really do an outstanding job, often under less than ideal circumstances.

They have my constant and heartfelt gratitude. I had the pleasure of speaking with the Bluffton Tea Party folks last Monday evening and it was truly a great time for me. These good people were kind enough to rearrange their meeting date and time to accommodate my Columbia schedule. They also had a big turnout even though the weather was awful.

As usual, I left knowing a lot more than when I arrived. The Tea Party movement, as many of you know, is about being involved in our government on a meaningful level, and supporting necessary change to the status quo. The reason I get along so well with the Tea Party folks is that I have been asking for voter involvement in government since the day I was first elected. I have been successful in Columbia because so many of you have aided me with your ideas, your criticism, and your active involvement in this partnership.

The first Tea Party event I attended had several speeches urging us to “take our country back.” Indeed, my political career has been almost entirely about making sure the people in “We the People” have a real and influential voice in state government. Judging from what I heard last Monday night, the Bluffton Tea Party gets it.

My only political strategy is to tap the collective wisdom of the voters of District 118, organize that wisdom into a coherent message and take it to Columbia. If even a fraction of my colleagues trusted their constituents enough to do the same, I’ll wager we would be cutting taxes rather than cutting benefits to the disabled and laying off teachers and prison guards.

Since I’m already on the soapbox, I might as well get some other stuff out in the open. This has to do with a constitutional amendment we put before you last November that you approved by more than 4 to 1.

The amendment required that all votes on whether an industry or shop would bring in a union would be done by secret ballot. In my view, this is pretty simple stuff. The secret ballot is a cornerstone of the democratic process. It essentially means the powerful cannot intimidate the individual in matters involving majority rule.

Several weeks ago, the powerful federal government, in the form of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) threatened to sue the state if the amendment is enacted. While the issue is not quite as simple as that, the matter is of such importance I believe we should welcome the prospect of defending the principle in court. Today is, of course, Valentine’s Day.

For all you fellas who might have forgotten, this is a belated heads up. So, in the interest of forming a more perfect union, and to secure your domestic tranquility, let me urge up to get the flowers and candy before any real damage is done.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Time to defend Waddell again

Bluffton Today

With all that happened this week in Columbia, as well as the topics broached in last week’s column, we had a record number of constituent contacts.

Unfortunately, we had e-mail problems both in Bluffton and at the Statehouse, so we couldn’t get a precise count. Those e-mail problems also made for difficulty in getting back to you on your questions or responding to your contributions. Some e-mail came in duplicate or triplicate while some didn’t make it at all. We will, as always, work through this and get back to you. If you don’t hear from me within a reasonable time, please resend your traffic.

It is crucial we remain in good contact. For any difficulty you may have experienced, we apologize. Each session, there are always new challenges to confront, a few new faces in the seats, different staff with the new governor or cabinet secretaries. Each session, I am also called on to defend our Waddell Mariculture Center. Good times or not so good times, there is always a move to eliminate this state-supported jewel from the budget, or somehow make its mission appear less valuable than other installations.

A couple of times, we had the Coastal Caucus down to the Mariculture Center for our annual meeting, which always takes the pressure off. When Al Stokes and his crew have an opportunity to explain their mission to my legislative colleagues, how a very modest state investment is so handsomely returned, the Coastal Caucus folks always support me as I make the case for the center. Unfortunately, this new session brings a new threat to the Waddell Mariculture Center, along with what is left of our Department of Natural Resources.

S.407 is a bill making its way through the senate that would take a portion of fees collected for fishing licenses and transferring those dollars to welfare, prisons and education. Supporters of this ill-conceived measure promise to restore the funding to DNR after the financial emergency, but you and I know that once the shift is made, those dollars are gone forever.

Fishing licenses are a user fee that supports a thriving industry in the Lowcountry. We expect those fees to go to enforcing the rules of fisheries management and supporting those programs that enhance the commercial and recreational fishing business. Diverting those user fees to other needs, regardless of seriousness, is something I will oppose with all that I am able to muster.

I am convinced that an already barebones Department of Natural Resources will not survive the diversion of even a portion of its funding. Al Stokes and the Waddell Mariculture Center have for years been doing world-class research and industry support on a tiny state appropriation, a few grants and contributions from the public. In better times, we will be able to enhance their funding so they can do some of the deferred maintenance that has essentially been accomplished with baling wire and duct tape.

Friends, the Heritage is in jeopardy, Hunting Island is eroding away, renourishment dollars for Hilton Head beaches are becoming even more scarce, and the Chambers of Commerce are working harder and harder to simply stay even with our tourism competitors. Can we afford to now allow our natural resources to be diminished for lack of even a modicum of professional management and support? I say NO, this will not happen on my watch.