Church leaders rally for Medicaid expansion

Faith leaders gathered at churches across the state Thursday in a last-gasp effort to convince legislators to restore a proposed Medicaid expansion to the $62 billion state operating budget scheduled for votes in the Ohio House and Senate on the same day.

Pastors from the local region met at New Vision United Methodist Church in Cincinnati to promote the statewide expansion of the federal-state program for the poor and disabled that would add about 275,000 newly eligible Ohioans.

The rally was organized by Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio, which, in addition to Cincinnati, coordinated church rallies in Columbus, Cleveland and other parts of the state.

Ohio Democrats on Thursday initiated a last-ditch effort to push Medicaid expansion through the General Assembly before lawmakers leave for summer break. They say Gov. John Kasich could call a special session for the House to vote as soon as Saturday.

Unless a special session is scheduled, the legislature is not expected to reconvene until after Labor Day. Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor won’t call a special session for Saturday, but didn’t explicitly rule it out beyond that.

Ironically, the rallies came on the heels of Kasich’s recent comments chastising Republican opponents of Medicaid expansion for betraying their conservative, Christian values.

In an interview with a Reuters’ reporter, Kasich said he told one Ohio lawmaker last week: “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor. You’d better have a good answer.”

Jermaine Armour, a Springfield Township resident and pastor at Saint Mark AME Zion Church, applauded the governor’s approach even if his comments about faith were tinged with political rhetoric.

“In politics, it seems like there is always an angle,” Armour said. “But we as believers, we welcome Gov. Kasich to join us in trying to appeal to the greater good in the hearts of people.”

Armour said expanding Medicaid as first proposed under the Affordable Care Act would benefit many of his parishioners because it would extend coverage to anyone earning up to 138 percent of poverty, regardless of their household makeup. Ohio, like most states, does not extend Medicaid coverage to adults unless they have children or are disabled.

But the Republican-led legislature nixed Medicaid expansion from Kasich’s budget, arguing the federal government can’t guarantee it will live up to its promise to fully fund the expansion for the first three years, and, even if it did, the expansion would add billions of dollars to the federal deficit.

Church leaders counter that the moral imperative to provide health care for as many Ohioans as possible outweighs the political and financial risk.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to be an advocate for those who are less fortunate,” said Rick Nance, senior pastor at New Vision. “When you live life from that perspective — politically or not — we know that at the end of the day, we still have needs we have not yet met in our community.”

Staff writer Andrew J. Tobias contributed to this report.