(Columbus) The Ohio Controlling Board granted a request from the governor to allow federal dollars to be spent on an expansion of Medicaid that would give health coverage to thousands of Ohioans.
Ohio recently received approval from the federal government to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor and disabled. However, Gov. John Kasich's administration needed legislative approval to spend federal money on an estimated 366,000 newly eligible residents.
The GOP-controlled Legislature has balked at the expansion, so administration officials asked the little-known Controlling Board, made up of six lawmakers and an administration official, for the authority to spend $561.7 million in federal money this budget year and almost $2 billion next year on expansion.
The board, which handles certain adjustments to the state budget, signed off on Kasich's spending request. It was approved by a 5-2 vote.
Kasich, a Republican, has pushed for Medicaid expansion since he pitched his version of the state's two-year budget in February. The General Assembly, in its opposition to that idea, has tried to find common ground on other changes to Medicaid.
State House Speaker William Batchelder replaced two Republican members of the legislative panel on Monday before the meeting. It was a move that angered State Rep. Ron Amstutz, one of those who was replaced. The Wooster Republican, who is in line to be the next Speaker, hinted that it may be more difficult to get things through the legislature in the future. He also said lawmakers may still weigh in before the end of the year.
"This isn't the end of the discussion," he said.
The board's approval of expansion is likely to spark a lawsuit.
State Rep. Ron Young, one of more than 30 House Republicans who formally protested the Controlling Board request last week, said he expects to be among plaintiffs in a lawsuit being prepared by expansion opponents.
Maurice Thompson, executive director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, said the group would argue in the suit that the board is violating the Legislature's intent not to expand Medicaid.
"Success for us looks like the Ohio Supreme Court simply reminding the Controlling Board of it's limited authority," Thompson said. "It does nothing to prohibit the future expansion of Medicaid, the retraction of Medicaid as you heard today, or any other Medicaid policy."
State Rep. Lou Terhar, a Cincinnati Republican, agrees that it's the process they're most upset about.
"The basis for this government is supposed to be that everyone gets a vote. What just happened in there is that 90 percent of Ohioans just got disenfranchised because they didn't get to vote," he said.
Medicaid already provides coverage to one of every five residents in Ohio and expansion is one of the key components of President Barack Obama's federal health care law.
The U.S. government promises to pay for the expansion for three years, gradually phasing down to 90 percent. Ohio would get $13 billion from the federal government to cover costs of an expanded program over the next seven years, according to the Kasich administration.
Medicaid expansion allows those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,860 for an individual, to be eligible for the program. Many are childless adults living in poverty.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave states the right to refuse the Medicaid expansion without jeopardizing the rest of their money for the program.
Many Republicans in Ohio are averse to the health overhaul and resistant to expanding government programs. They have cited concerns about increasing the national debt and fears that the money from Washington could be cut off.
Sen. Chris Widener, one of the 'yes' votes on the Controlling Board, sees Medicaid as a temporary program.
"These people are not wanting to be in Medicaid their whole entire lives. They're working Ohioans. They're Ohioans who need help for a little bit of time related to a health care issue," the Springfield Republican said.
he Kasich administration has said the state would be ready to implement an expansion of the program when it gets legislative backing. Newly eligible residents could start enrolling as soon as this month for coverage that takes effect in January.
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