The chairman of the panel overseeing the Florida Senate’s Medicaid reform efforts said Wednesday that one of his goals will be to free up more funding for other areas of the state budget, like education, which could face cuts as lawmakers prepare to tackle a shortfall that could exceed $3 billion.

State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, said that as a share of the state budget, health care services have enjoyed a “dramatic shift of resources” over the past two decades, a change that has “more to do with tactics than policy,” in part because health agencies have been “much more adept” at navigating political and budgeting processes.

Negron outlined a series of priorities for Medicaid reform when the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee met last month. He said he definitely intends to address the issue during the upcoming session, and that he hoped the committee would have a bill to discuss by February.

One of the arguments against reducing state support for Medicaid is that most of its funding comes from the federal government, which pumps money into the state. As a report (.pdf) issued late last year by the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy noted, “every dollar of state funding invested in Medicaid this budget year is drawing down an additional $1.84 in federal matching funds.”

Negron said he was just as interested in reducing the strain on the federal budget as he was in saving the state money. He agreed with Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, who emphasized to fellow members that funding, whether state or federal, still comes from taxpayers.

Legislative economist Amy Baker told the panel that Florida has traditionally managed many aspects of its Medicaid program “as frugally as possible.”

“We’re not really spending a lot compared to other states,” said state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, noting that Florida ranks 45th among U.S. states in Medicaid spending per patient for both children and the elderly. (It ranks 42nd overall, according to figures presented to the panel Wednesday.)

Negron said after the meeting that he was more concerned with the size of health spending as a “piece of the government pie” than with how Florida’s spending on the program compares to other states.

“We can only spend the money we have,” he said.

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