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Medicaid for housing bills headed for Senate vote

Updated: 
March 1, 2017 - 11:53am

HILO — State Sen. Josh Green introduced more than 10 bills this session relating to homelessness.

As of Tuesday, two were headed for a vote on the Senate floor. But neither are quite as ambitious as when they started.

Senate Bill 2 would have required health insurance providers to offer coverage for “the treatment of homelessness,” effectively declaring living without a roof above your head a medical issue.

The bill passed two committees after being amended to instead require the state auditor to study use of Medicaid funds to treat homelessness.

The original and amended versions define treatment as behavioral health services, case management, personal care, home and community-based services and housing services. The study would be due before the start of the 2018 legislative session.

Senate Bill 7 would have required the state Department of Human Services to create a Medicaid housing benefit plan.

The amended version uses slightly different language. It directs the department to pursue “efforts to utilize Medicaid to provide supportive housing services for chronically homeless individuals” and offers guidance for that effort.

The current version also directs the department to review progress of the Hawaii Pathways Project, which takes a “housing first” approach to those suffering from substance abuse or mental illness.

Both bills passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee in their amended forms Thursday. Funding amounts were left blank.

Green, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Kona and Ka‘u, said he is satisfied with both bills since they follow the same premise.

He’s confident they will pass the Senate next week. While noting noting that getting bold ideas through both chambers the first year can be difficult, he said he remained optimistic.

“I’m surprised people are ready for new ideas,” said Green, who chairs the Human Services Committee.

He said using Medicaid for housing would require a waiver from the federal government.

Scott Morishige, the governor’s homeless coordinator, said in testimony on SB 2 that the Legislature may still need to pass a concurrent resolution in order for the auditor to conduct the study.

In testimony for SB 7, Morishige cited preliminary data that showed people housed under the pathways project saw their health care costs drop an average of 43 percent in the six months following placement.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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