Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER — Lawmakers took steps this week to begin considering whether to join the rest of the United States and use Medicaid dollars to fund special education services in Wyoming schools.

Special education has been a frequent topic of discussion among legislators in recent years, amid a school-funding situation that has tempered from crisis to slow-boiling deficit. For years, the state fully paid for all special education services, reimbursing 100% of expenses school districts incurred. Last year, though, the Legislature passed a law that capped special education in an attempt to stem those costs, which have steadily increased in recent years.

According to preliminary Department of Education data from last year, an estimated $244.2 million was spent on special education in the 2017-18 school year, more than 15% of the state’s total K-12 education budget.

But cutting special education is difficult because it’s both politically unpopular and legally protected. Dicky Shanor, the Education Department’s chief of staff, told lawmakers on the education committee Wednesday that the recent spending cap is already giving rise to potential issues, and it hasn’t fully gone into effect yet.

This is where the Medicaid plan comes into play. A budget amendment passed earlier this year required that the policymakers at the state departments of health and education examine using Medicaid dollars to pay for some special education funding.

Such a plan is not unique. Indeed, Wyoming is the only state in the country that doesn’t make use of Medicaid to fund special education.

While the discussions are in the early phases, to the point it’s still unknown how exactly the money will flow from the program to schools, the rough outline is clear. Districts could begin receiving reimbursement from the state Medicaid program for special education services provided to students who are enrolled in Medicaid. Those services would be for things like physical or speech therapy, officials told the Education Committee, though the state could also bill broader health services — like screenings — to the state Medicaid program for those students. Services like contraceptives or family planning would not be included, officials said.

The state doesn’t know how many Wyoming special education students are enrolled in Medicaid, though Dennis Finnegan, who works for the consulting group working with it on the plan, said probably around 35% are, give or take a few percentage points.

How much money the state would save by instituting the Medicaid program is unclear. The state would have to consider two funding models, and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, would have to approve the plan before the state could implement it. But in a separate presentation to the Education Committee this week, another consultant estimated the program could be what Rep. Cathy Connolly called “an enormous bang-for-the-buck” savings.

The state would still have to pay for 50% of the Medicaid program. Lindsey Schilling, who works for the state Health Department, said how the state would pay for the expanded Medicaid program is unknown.

Schilling and other policymakers presenting the plan to lawmakers Wednesday hit on several things to be wary of as legislators consider moving forward, including how long it can take CMS to approve plans, how many Medicaid-qualified providers would be available and potential low participation by districts.

The lawmakers added other concerns: Would the plan work for every school district? How many people would state agencies have to hire to run the program smoothly? Would Medicaid spending just be replacing current spending, or would it be adding to it?

Answers to those questions remain to be found. Policymakers at the departments of health and education are slated to continue their work over the summer and will return with a report for lawmakers in the early fall.

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