Lawmakers seek answers, say SC quietly taking health care funds
COLUMBIA — Five state lawmakers led by Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, have requested an audit of the S.C. Department of Insurance to account for dollars that have been awarded to, and perhaps spent by, the state of South Carolina under the federal health care reform act.
He added: “I hope we’re not hoarding information as well as hoarding dollars.”
At least $16.8 million has been awarded to the state under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet. That includes a $1 million grant that was applied for and rewarded in September to plan for health insurance exchanges.
“For a very long time, we heard our state wasn’t accepting federal dollars,” Sellers said. “And come to find out, we received (more than) $15 million. I just wanted to make sure we’re using them for the correct purpose.”
The Governor’s Office said Cabinet agencies had only applied for about $2.4 million of the available money and pointed out that it happened under the administration of former Gov. Mark Sanford.
Of that, only about $17,000 has been drawn down from the federal government — but a recent executive order makes the $1 million available to study exchanges, said Tim Pearson, chief of staff for Gov. Nikki Haley.
“The Legislative Audit Council is always welcome to come in and look at our agencies. We’ve always said that,” he said. “I think they’ll come in and find the Department of Insurance is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
State Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, has been working since at least December on legislation that would create a state health insurance exchange — a marketplace where different insurers compete to offer coverage for the uninsured.
Mitchell and his allies — which include Republican Reps. Doug Brannon, Rita Allison, Steve Parker and House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper — have said that such an exchange will allow South Carolina to “opt-out” of part of the federal health care overhaul. If the state can’t produce its own exchange, the federal government will make one for South Carolina.
Hours after Mitchell’s bill won a key subcommittee vote last week, Haley issued an executive order to study health insurance exchanges — an order Mitchell said made the first reference to the $1 million planning grant.
“Money is starting to appear from every source now,” Mitchell said. “I know we’re in the Bible Belt, but this isn’t manna raining from heaven.”
After Haley issued the executive order, Mitchell accused her of operating behind closed doors. On Monday, Mitchell said the matter came down to a communication breakdown between the Haley administration and the General Assembly.
Pearson said the governor didn’t want to jump into a “legislative obligation” without studying the matter first.
“We are going to study it, because we’re not going to be victims of this problem, this program, and let the feds tell us exactly how we have to do it,” he said. “That would be irresponsible.”
He went further and said Mitchell’s bill “is ‘ObamaCare’ in the state of South Carolina.”
“What’s important here is how the exchange is created. We believe that (Mitchell) is going about it … entirely the wrong way,” Pearson said.
Under the proposed legislation, the insurance industry would not have representation on the 15-member board overseeing a state health insurance exchange. It would be relegated to an advisory capacity.
When asked how much influence insurance companies should have over governing a health care exchange here, Pearson said that would be determined by the study.
Sellers, Mitchell and Democratic Reps. Harry Ott, Gild Cobb-Hunter and John King signed the letter to the S.C. Legislative Audit Council requesting the review of federal health care dollars being used in South Carolina.
Legislative Audit Council Director Tom Bardin said his agency’s board of directors will determine whether to honor the request on March 31 — and what priority it should hold.
The letter requests information on all federal health care dollars that have been spent, and any plans to spend such dollars that have been received but not yet spent.
It also requests recommendations to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of grant implementation.
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