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CHEYENNE – Wyoming is one step closer to getting Medicaid to cover some of the state’s special education costs.

The House Education Committee voted 6-3 Friday to advance House Bill 119. If it passes into law, the legislation would give Wyoming’s 48 school districts the option to bill Medicaid for half of the costs of special education services, which include speech therapy, occupational therapy and counseling.

“Outside the school system, (those services) would qualify to be reimbursed by Medicaid,” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, as he testified in favor of the bill, which the Joint Appropriations Committee is sponsoring. In Wyoming, federal Medicaid dollars typically cover half the cost of approved services. The other 50% is matched with money from the state’s general fund.

Wyoming is the only state in the country, however, that isn’t using Medicaid to help pay for special education services, and instead leaves that up to the school system.

“The intent of this bill is to capture that 50% of federal funds and bring that into the school system,” Larsen said. “The first thing we have to do is get the two agencies – the Department of Health and the Department of Education – working together.”

The bill proposes to have school districts bill special education costs to the Department of Health. But instead of tapping money from the state’s general fund to write those checks, districts could draw on both Medicaid and the school foundation formula for reimbursements.

HB 119 would not require districts to participate in the Medicaid program, but any district that has 25 or more Medicaid-eligible students would be allowed to do so.

In the past, the state has reimbursed districts for 100% of the costs to provide special education services. But, in 2018, the Legislature approved a spending cap that kept the state’s reimbursements tied to the amount districts spent in previous years. House Bill 46, which passed out of committee earlier this week, would lift that cap.

“These are some of the most vulnerable kids in our community. They already have challenges that you and I wouldn’t believe,” Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, said on the House floor Friday, about an hour before the House Education Committee debated HB 119. “We need to fully fund special education.”

Lifting the special education funding cap this session is one of the factors that could determine Laramie County School District 1’s ability to successfully pilot the program starting in the 2021-22 school year.

“Absent the passage of House Bill 46, our district anticipates being over the cap by $1 million to $1.5 million,” Jed Cicarelli, Laramie County School District 1 finance director, told the committee. “That would potentially create implementation issues for us – without the resources available to start the program.”

Although Cicarelli said that “if the program moves forward, we’re willing to move forward,” he did note the district’s “trepidation for the unknown aspects of the administrative burden.” The district anticipates having to hire at least one full-time billing specialist, which he estimated would cost around $70,000, to facilitate the program.

HB 119’s potential to increase administrative costs grabbed the attention of Rep. Garry Piiparinen, R-Evanston, who asked if districts have to hire additional staff to take care of this paperwork.

Larsen said that when it was first proposed, some districts were concerned about that, but further examination has indicated that “a huge requirement in adding additional full time staff may not necessarily be that case.”

Several minutes later, Piiparinen joined Reps. John Freeman, D-Green River, and Evan Simpson, R-Afton, in voting against the bill.

But that wasn’t enough to keep it from moving back to the full House chamber, where it must pass three votes to advance to the Senate.

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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