Medicaid advocates await lawmaker action

Advocates for Medicaid expansion are hoping Ohio lawmakers will pass a bill yet this fall but they are quietly doing their homework to put the question to voters in 2014 in case legislators don’t act.

“We are hearing that there is continuing to be bipartisan activity behind the scenes. We look forward to that coming out in the open sooner rather than later,” said Jon Allison of the Ohio Alliance for Health Transformation, a coalition of more than 140 business, labor, health and community groups.

Allison said the alliance is researching how a ballot issue should be worded, whether to use paid employees or volunteers to collect petition signatures and how to raise the $15 million to $25 million that a statewide campaign would likely cost.

A citizen-initiated statute requires 115,000 valid voter signatures before a proposed law can be presented to the General Assembly, which then has four months to decide whether to adopt or reject it. Allison, a Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff to Gov. Bob Taft, said the timetable and work load dictate that the alliance would need to start collecting signatures just after Labor Day.

At stake is billions of federal dollars and health care coverage for 275,000 low-income Ohioans. The trade off, though, is expanding an already enormous government program — something fiscal conservatives warn will saddle future generations with even more debt.

Gov. John Kasich included a Medicaid expansion plan in his 2014-2015 state budget proposal but House conservatives removed it.

Medicaid is a state and federally funded health care plan that covers 2.3 million low-income and disabled Ohioans, costs $19.8 billion a year, is the largest payer of nursing home care in the state and pays for 45 percent of the births in Ohio.

Expanding Medicaid eligibility up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line is a key element of the federal health care law. The federal government will pay 100 percent of states’ costs of newly eligible enrollees for three years, and then eventually dial it back to 90 percent. An expanded Medicaid program would bring in $13 billion in federal money over seven years to Ohio.

Medicaid bills are pending in both the House and Senate but lawmakers are currently on summer break.