Member changes to controlling board could mean yes vote on Medicaid expansion

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks about health coverage in the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus in July.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks about health coverage in the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus in July.

COLUMBUS — It appears some 275,000 additional Ohioans are about to climb onto the Medicaid rolls.

A quick replacement of two members on the little known Ohio Controlling Board appears to have assured a majority vote today to do what the 132-member General Assembly would not — expand eligibility for the federal-state health insurance of last resort.

House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) today named Reps. Jeff McClain (R., Upper Sandusky) and Ross McGregor (R., Springfield) to the panel to replace Reps. Ron Amstutz (R., Wooster) and Cliff Rosenberger (R., Clarksville). Both Mr. Amstuz and Mr. Rosenberger are vying to replace Mr. Batchelder as the next speaker.

Mr. McGregor, a moderate Republican has spoken favorably of expansion in the past and has been known to break with his caucus in the past. Mr. McClain, an expected “no” vote, said he would prefer to see the vote postponed.

“Our members want to seriously quicken the pace of a series of bills that relate to Medicaid reforms and improving the opportunities for low-wealth and struggling citizens to move up and off of having a need for Medicaid,” said Mr. McClain, whose district stretches as far north as western Seneca County.

“We continue to do everything we can to better the lives of all Ohioans and believe that the reform path is the best solution both now and into the future to improve the health of even more Ohioans,” he said.

Mr. Batchelder appears to have put a “yes” vote on the panel despite his signing last week with 38 other House Republicans of a letter challenging the constitutionality of using the controlling board to sidestep the General Assembly as a whole on the issue.

The board is expected to grant Gov. John Kasich’s request to accept $2.56 billion in federal funds under the Affordable Care Act to pay for the expansion through June 30, 2015.

Barring a successful court challenge to undo the decision, those earning as much as 38 percent over the federal poverty level could sign on to Medicaid beginning Jan. 1 as one option to comply with the federal health-care law’s mandate that most Americans must acquire coverage. For a family of four, 38 percent over the federal poverty threshold would be about $32,000 a year.

Mr. McGregor, a moderate Republican who has broken with a majority of his caucus before on controversial issues, is expected to join at least the two Democrats on the panel — Rep. Chris Redfern (D-Catawba Island) and Sen. Tom Sawyer (D., Akron) — and Mr. Kasich’s own board president, Randy Cole, in the “yes” column.

Sen. Bill Coley (R., West Chester) is expected to oppose the move. That leaves Sen. Chris Widener (R., Springfield).

Mr. Kasich bucked the conservative wing of his own party to propose the expansion in February, making the financial and moral case that it was the right thing to do, regardless of his general distaste for what is commonly called Obamacare.

But fellow Republicans stripped the language from his budget proposal and took the extra step of adding language designed to prevent the governor from taking steps to expand Medicaid without the General Assembly’s approval.

Mr. Kasich used his line-item veto authority to strike that language before signing the budget into law. When the legislature still failed to vote eight months after he proposed it, Mr. Kasich turned to the little known Ohio Controlling Board to do an end-run around it.

The panel usually moves money around, giving one last look at grants and other state funding before they go out the door. But it has also acted in the past to accept federal dollars that became available between budget votes.

“I’m disappointed that the chairman of the (House) Finance Committee (Mr. Amstutz) did not have more robust hearings on Medicaid expansion,” said Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), probably the most outspoken House Republican on the issue.

“I would have liked a full conversation, but I am very comfortable with this being brought to the controlling board, which was created and run by the legislature,” she said.