By Ann Sanner
COLUMBUS: Ohio Gov. John Kasich is turning to a powerful but little-known legislative panel to do what his fellow Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly wouldn’t: expand Medicaid.
Kasich’s administration submitted a request Friday to the state Controlling Board, which handles certain adjustments to the state budget. The request would allow federal dollars to cover more low-income residents under the health-care overhaul beginning Jan. 1, said Greg Moody, director of the Governor’s Office of Health Transformation.
The board is scheduled to meet Oct. 21.
Kasich proposed an extension of Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor and disabled, in his two-year state budget plan in February. But the GOP-controlled legislature has balked, despite the U.S. government promising to cover the entire cost of the expansion for the first three years and 90 percent after that.
The federal health overhaul expands Medicaid eligibility to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,860 for an individual. Roughly 366,000 Ohioans would be newly eligible for coverage under the extension beginning in 2014.
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.
Moody said the Kasich administration sought federal approval last month to expand the program, which the state received Thursday. Now officials need legislative sign-off to spend the federal money on the newly eligible Medicaid enrollees through June 30, 2015, the end of the current state budget.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the administration will be ready to implement an expansion of the program when it’s approved. Kasich is on vacation.
It’s unclear what the seven-member panel will decide. The two Democrats on the board have expressed support for Medicaid expansion, including state Rep. Chris Redfern.
But Redfern said Friday he worries how majority Republicans will react when the next state budget gets written in two years.
“Are we going to take this population and shift them out of Medicaid then?” Redfern asked.
Four Republicans and a Kasich administration official also sit on the Controlling Board.
Three of those Republicans said Friday they disagreed with Kasich’s decision to take the issue out of the hands of the legislature.
“I have grave concerns about the place, the time and the substance of this proposed Controlling Board action,” said Ron Amstutz, a state representative from Wooster.
State Sen. Bill Coley said the legislature has made good-faith efforts toward compromise with hearings and a package of policy changes introduced Thursday. He said he stands by his decision to oppose the expansion plan contained in the budget but he’s reviewing the new request before deciding.
Robert Alt, president of the conservative Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, said Kasich’s strategy “smells of an abuse of power, it smells of an end run around the traditional legislative process.” Alt said the move would “almost certainly” spark a legal challenge.
Kasich has pushed the legislature for months to act on extending Medicaid. Lawmakers in both chambers have held hearings on the issue, trying to find common ground.
Moody said because of the timing and the governor wanting additional people covered by January, going through the board is “the right course.”
“This has been coming for a while,” Moody said.
House Minority Leader Tracy Heard praised the administration’s move, saying she was “cautiously optimistic” that the state was moving to embrace the law.
Medicaid expansion is one of the key components of Democratic President Barack Obama’s health-care law. About half the people gaining coverage would do so through Medicaid.
Many Republicans in the General Assembly 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.
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 already provides coverage to one of every five residents in Ohio.