By Ann Sanner
COLUMBUS: Democratic state lawmakers on Tuesday urged “meaningful” action from Republican Gov. John Kasich on Medicaid expansion as he rallied a group of residents to increase pressure on their representatives to support extended health coverage.
While both Kasich and Democrats favor Medicaid expansion, they split Tuesday over how to accomplish it. The issue has struggled to gain traction in a legislature the governor’s fellow Republicans control.
The separate events at the Statehouse highlighted the tensions on the issue.
House Democratic Leader Tracy Heard called on the governor to focus on swaying members of his party — not those who already endorse Medicaid expansion. She called the rally at the Capitol a “great opportunity for a photo op.”
“It’s very frustrating that we’re continuing to see him reach out to our side, reach out to the advocates on this issue,” said Heard, of Columbus. “We really need him to reach out to the Republican caucus and the legislature.”
Kasich proposed extending Medicaid coverage in February, but GOP leaders scrapped it from the two-year state budget that was passed in June.
Lawmakers since have been trying to find common ground on changes to the federal-state program for low-income and disabled Ohioans.
Meanwhile, the governor has continued to make the argument for Medicaid expansion at appearances around the state and rallies in Columbus.
Kasich contends expansion allows the state to reclaim Ohio taxpayers’ money from Washington to provide health-care coverage to the state’s neediest residents.
“We are going to get this done,” Kasich told a coalition of Medicaid supporters Tuesday. “I don’t care what it takes. We are going to get this done.”
State legislators are on summer break. The Senate has tentative days scheduled for late August, while the House has tentative session days scheduled for mid-September.
Asked about whether he should be pushing harder on GOP members, Kasich told reporters, “I don’t know what more I can do without going over the edge.”
“We’ve made every effort that we can make.”
Heard said Kasich can call the legislature back and force a vote on the issue.
Kasich said he wanted to be respectful of the legislative process.
“What I do know, instinctively, is if I put people in a corner, I am unlikely to get what I want to help people who need help,” Kasich told reporters.
Roughly 366,000 Ohioans would be newly eligible for coverage beginning in 2014 by expanding Medicaid. The federal government would pay the entire cost of the expansion for the first three years, gradually phasing down to 90 percent — still well above Ohio’s level of 64 percent.
Ohio would get $13 billion from the federal government to cover program costs over the next seven years, according to the Kasich administration.
The Medicaid expansion is a key part of Democratic President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
Many Republican lawmakers 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.
As chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee in the late 1990s, Kasich helped pass major legislation to reduce federal debt. He said everyone has concerns about adding to it, but he doesn’t want the federal funds being spent somewhere else.
“You know, I worked in Washington long enough to know that they don’t ever save anything,” he said at the rally.
While there’s no federal deadline to expand the program, state officials say the decision needs to clear the legislature by the late summer for people to be covered by January.
Kasich implored Tuesday’s crowd to meet with their state lawmakers and make it clear that “no is not an option.”
“Now, you don’t go in namby-pamby. But you also don’t go in so aggressive that you turn them off. But you all have a story,” he said. “Every single person here can help to make this happen.”