- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming has burned through more than half of a fund it created earlier this year to reimburse hospitals to cover the cost of treating uninsured patients after lawmakers rejecting calls to expand the federal Medicaid program.

The Wyoming Department of Health says the state has paid $1.3 million to 18 hospitals under the state’s new subsidy program since July. The state allocated $2 million for the program.

The fund was created after Gov. Matt Mead failed to persuade lawmakers expand Medicaid. The bill reimburses hospitals with state funds to help offset the heavy financial burden imposed on them by poor and uninsured patients.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion have said it would provide health care coverage to 17,600 people in Wyoming, bring more than $100 million a year in new federal funds and create hundreds of jobs. Washington has pledged to cover 100 percent of expansion costs through 2016, dropping to 90 percent after that.

But lawmakers earlier rejected the effort. Many Wyoming lawmakers have said they distrust federal promises to continue funding and don’t like the notion of adding to the federal deficit by accepting the money. Medicaid expansion is also a key element of President Barack Obama’s health care law, which is roundly opposed by Republicans.

The payments range from just under $2,000 for the Crook County Memorial Hospital up to over $282,000 for the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper. The state payments are small compared to the $21 million in charity care for treatment of uninsured people that state records show 26 hospitals around the state logged in 2013.

Laura J. Hurst, an official in Health Department’s Public Health Division, said her office is still accepting applications from Wyoming hospitals through next June for remaining funding under the $2-million program.

A parallel $1-million program, administered through the Wyoming State Auditor’s Office, targets the state’s smallest hospitals - those with 25 or fewer beds. To qualify, hospitals had to show their cash reserves fell below the amount needed to cover 100 days of operation at some point during the last half of 2014.

Eric Boley, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said Monday the new state programs have helped hospitals around the state. “For a few of them - especially my smaller hospitals - any of the money that they can use to help offset that uncompensated care has been beneficial,” he said.

Boley said he understands that all the money has been paid out of the program under the Auditor’s Office.

The hospital association as well as a coalition of business and industry groups had lobbied in support of Mead’s call for Medicaid expansion.

Mead, a Republican, had opposed expansion in Wyoming for most of his first term. But this year, at the start of his second term, he urged lawmakers to approve an expansion bill, saying in his state of the state address that Wyoming could no longer afford to forego federal funds. He ultimately allowed the subsidy bill to take effect without his signature.

David Bush, spokesman for the governor, said Monday that Mead remains interested in seeing the state expand the Medicaid program but hasn’t decided whether he will ask the Legislature to act on it in the 2016 legislative session.

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, chairs the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee and is a longtime opponent of Medicaid expansion. He said Monday he doesn’t expect the Legislature will continue the hospital funding effort and likely won’t expand Medicaid.

“I think, and I think a majority of our fellow legislators think education, and water development and transportation, are more important than this,” Scott said. He said lawmakers have concerns about the continued viability of some of the smaller hospitals in the state.

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