Frankfort, KY – Elizabeth Johnson, a lawyer who has spent the past 16 years in state government, announced her resignation Tuesday. She told The Courier-Journal she was not asked to resign and is leaving to work with the Lexington law office of Stites and Harbison, Gov. Steve Beshear's former law firm.
"I feel like I've put in my time," Johnson said. "I don't have any regrets. This is one of the most positive things I have done in my career so far."
Kentucky's $6 billion a year Medicaid program serves about 800,000 low-income and disabled Kentuckians. Its nearly $500 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year has made it a target for criticism from some lawmakers and advocates.
The administration plans to appoint deputy Medicaid Commissioner Neville Wise as acting commissioner while it conducts a national search for Johnson's permanent replacement.
Johnson was working as a hearing officer and lawyer until Janie Miller, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, asked her to become Medicaid commissioner after Beshear's election in 2007.
She acknowledged that the job has been stressful and sometimes put her at odds with lawmakers.
Among them is House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, who has accused the cabinet of "stonewalling" lawmakers seeking information on Medicaid, particularly expanding managed care within the program.
Stumbo said he hopes Beshear replaces Johnson with someone with "an extensive background in Medicaid management, both here and other states as well."
The Medicaid program also has drawn complaints from advocates who believe they have been left out of crucial decisions that could affect care for hundreds of thousands of disabled, elderly and low income Kentuckians.
"At this point the advocates have been shut out," said Mary Hass, a longtime member of the Brain Injury Association of Kentucky. "Medicaid has been locked up tighter than Fort Knox."
Cathy Allgood Murphy, with AARP of Kentucky, said she hopes the new commissioner will be "someone who has an open door for us, who will sit down with advocates and invite them in."
Another legislator who has criticized Johnson is Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who scolded her at a meeting of a legislative task force formed to find ways to control Medicaid costs after she was unable to say how her department plans to handle the growing budget shortfall.
Williams, a candidate for governor in next year's election, said Johnson's resignation shows the lack of leadership by Beshear, a Democrat seeking a second term.
Beshear said through spokeswoman Kerri Richardson that his administration is focused on finding cost-saving measures in Medicaid.
Richardson said the program has "continued to provide necessary medical services to a swelling population of the most vulnerable Kentuckians."