Lawmakers consider indigent care bill

Lawmakers struggling to find money for essential state services were told Wednesday that funding stripped last year from an indigent accident account must be restored or some rural Nevada hospitals may be forced to close.

Assembly Ways and Means Committee members got the warning during debate on AB404, which would restore $25 million to the account used to pay hospital costs for treating people who lack insurance and personal funds and are hurt in auto accidents.

The money was cut from the budget during a special legislative session in 2008 and transferred to the state general fund to ease the budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.

"The hospitals have been hit repeatedly during this downturn," said Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert, R-Reno. "These hospitals are our safety net. We have to find money to put it back."

By law, counties are required to provide services to indigents, and the indigent accident account has been used to offset some of the expenses incurred by hospitals, rather than sticking local governments with the medical bills.

AB404 also was endorsed by representatives from hospitals and counties, including Bob Hadfield of the Nevada Association of Counties who said several rural hospitals "would no longer be operating in Nevada if these funds were taken away."

"I believe it will result, if we can't restore these funds, in a reduction of services," added Kevin Schiller, representing Washoe County Social Services.

Constance Brooks, representing Clark County, echoed those concerns, and said the decision greatly impacts University Medical Center, the county hospital which serves the greatest share of indigents in the state.

After the meeting, Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the Legislature would be unlikely to restore cuts they already agreed to during the 2008 special session.

"If it's to put back what we've already cut, that's fantasyland," Leslie said. "That's not going to happen."

The Legislature also is considering whether to add back $50 million which was cut from the indigent accident account in Gov. Jim Gibbons' proposed budget for the next two fiscal years. Leslie said the panel may vote to restore up to half of those $50 million in cuts.

Gibbons also has proposed a 5 percent decrease in Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals as part of his budget plan for the next biennium.

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