April 24, 2014

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Updated: Ohio board approves Medicaid expansion

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at the Cleveland Clinic, using one of the nation's best known hospitals to make a final public push for Medicaid expansion Friday. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at the Cleveland Clinic, using one of the nation’s best known hospitals to make a final public push for Medicaid expansion Friday. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio legislative panel granted a request Monday from the governor to allow federal dollars to be spent on an expansion of Medicaid that would give health coverage to thousands more residents.

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 Legislature, in its opposition to that idea, has tried to find common ground on other changes to Medicaid.

Ohio recently got federal approval to extend Medicaid eligibility, but Kasich’s administration needed legislative approval to spend federal money on the estimated 366,000 newly eligible residents.

Wanting more people to be covered by January, the governor turned to the quietly powerful Controlling Board, where he would need fewer votes for the plan. The panel — which handles certain adjustments to the state budget — consists of two Democrats, four Republicans and a Kasich appointee from the Office of Budget and Management. State House Speaker William Batchelder replaced two Republican members of the legislative panel on Monday before the meeting.

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.

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.

The 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.