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Missouri Senate panel backs changes to blind benefits

Blind Missouri residents could have to start paying premiums of more than $100 monthly to remain eligible for state health care coverage, under a budget-cutting plan put forth Tuesday night by a Senate committee.

The plan embraced by the Senate Appropriations Committee could represent a middle ground with the House, which had sought to eliminate the blind health care benefits and replace them with a new, substantially slimmed down program. But the new plan does not appear to be backed by the administration of Gov. Jay Nixon, who has been outspoken against any cuts to blind benefits.

For more than 50 years, Missouri has paid for the health care of blind residents who earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid health care program for low-income residents — a cutoff of about $755 a month, according to the Department of Social Services. The state also provides a separate, roughly $700 payment to the blind. More than 2,800 blind residents currently are covered by the special health care program.

The Republican-led House voted last month to eliminate the roughly $30 million blind health care program, arguing that the money was needed to help balance the budget and noting that no comparable benefit was available to people with other types of disabilities. The House instead voted to fund a new $6 million blind health care plan, funded largely by a tax increase on newspaper publishers.

Nixon, a Democrat, called the House budget cut "dead wrong."

The Senate Appropriations Committee scrapped the House plan, deciding that it seemed unlikely that the newspaper tax increase could pass. Instead, the Senate version would provide about $18 million for the blind health care benefits while assuming that nearly $10 million of additional funding could be generated by charging deductibles, premiums and insurance co-payments.

Senate appropriations staff said the estimate was based on a $600 deductible and a monthly premium of $111 — the same amounts currently paid by many state employees for health, vision and dental coverage.

The plan was put forth by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who said it was his understanding that some blind people currently receiving the state-funded health care plan could be eligible for Medicaid, which receives more than 60 percent of its funding from the federal government. Part of Schaefer's plan would require eligibility reviews for the state-funded program so that more participants could potentially be shifted to the regular Medicaid program.

Brian Kinkade, the interim director of the Department of Social Services, said the agency already conducts annual eligibility reviews for people on the Medicaid and state-funded blind benefits programs.

The department would prefer to continue the blind benefits program as it is, Kinkade said.

"Today they have health care provided, and it sounds like tomorrow they would have to pay under the Senate position," Kinkade said.

The Senate committee's plan still must go before the full Senate, and differences with the House then would have to be reconciled through a conference committee consisting of members from both chambers. Missouri's proposed $24 billion operating budget would take effect July 1.

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