Kasich Skirts Fellow Republicans to Expand Ohio Medicaid

As Congressional Republicans’ 16-day fight to defund President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul dissolved, Ohio Governor John Kasich was trying to find a way around his party to expand Medicaid under the law.

Kasich, having failed to persuade Republican lawmakers to add 275,000 adults to the state-federal health program, will ask the seven-member Ohio Controlling Board, a separate legislative panel that considers agency spending requests, to vote Oct. 21 on taking federal money for the expansion. Almost two-thirds of the 60 Republican state representatives, including Speaker William Batchelder, protested the move yesterday.

“It may be the only way to get it done,” former Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat whom Kasich beat in 2010, told reporters this week. “I disagree with Governor Kasich about a lot of things, but he’s a fellow who has a lot of political experience, and he knows that this is the right thing.”

Kasich, 61, a former Budget Committee chairman in the U.S. House of Representatives, one-time presidential candidate and first-term governor, is charting a course diametrically opposed to the views of his party’s legislative leaders and more conservative members. With polls showing rising support for the law known as Obamacare, Kasich has said the Medicaid deal makes fiscal sense and that the state has a moral duty to help the poor despite Tea Party anger.

Vote Avoidance

Under the Affordable Care Act, states can expand Medicaid to cover those earning about a third more than the federal poverty level, or $15,856 annually for an individual and $26,951 for a family of three this year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, California-based nonprofit group that studies health issues. It said Ohio would be the 25th state to take that step. The U.S. government would pay all the added cost for the first three years and at least 90 percent after that.

Seven of 30 Republican governors are expanding Medicaid, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Jan Brewer in Arizona and Rick Snyder in Michigan, according to Kaiser. While Brewer carried through her threat to veto unrelated bills until lawmakers relented, Kasich is trying to skirt a full vote in his Republican-led legislature.

In a perennial presidential battleground that Obama won twice, Ohio Republicans control all statewide elective offices. Kasich, a former state senator and nine-term congressman, included the Medicaid expansion in his budget proposal in February only to see lawmakers remove it.

Moral Duty

Kasich said expansion makes fiscal sense because the federal government would pay about $13 billion over seven years to cover residents who otherwise would get care at emergency rooms, often without being able to pay for it. Aside from the money, it’s just right, the governor said.

“For those that live in the shadows of life, those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored,” the governor said in a Feb. 19 speech.

Kasich’s plan won support from the state Chamber of Commerce and business groups such as the Ohio Hospital Association, which said members stood to lose $7.4 billion during the next decade from reduced federal reimbursements.

Even so, some Republican legislators opposed to the law objected to expanding what they said is a flawed program, without guarantees that a federal government already spending too much will keep its promises.

End Run

“This will change medicine in this country,” Batchelder, a Republican from Medina, told reporters yesterday in Columbus, the state capital. Republican leaders are instead pursing bills to “reform” Medicaid, and Batchelder said he signed the protest letter because he has legal and constitutional issues with Kasich’s bypassing the full legislature.

Former Governor Bob Taft, a Republican who preceded Strickland, said Kasich showed leadership just as a “very small minority” of Republicans in Congress shut down the government and brought the U.S. to the brink of default.

“The minority seems to be driving the train right now,” Taft, 71, told reporters in Columbus on Oct. 15.

Republicans of all stripes are furious, especially at Kasich’s attempt to go around the legislature, said Tom Zawistowski, executive director of the Portage County Tea Party. He said members won’t support Kasich’s re-election next year.

“There’s really a lot of outrage,” Zawistowski said by telephone. “It’s too much like what Obama does.”

Contrarian Governor

Kasich lacked the will to move his party, and bypassing the full legislature will invite costly legal challenges that could delay enrollments, said Representative Chris Redfern of Catawba Island. He’s a Controlling Board member and the Ohio Democratic Party chairman. The board consists of four Republican and two Democratic lawmakers, plus a chairman appointed by Kasich.

While Republicans differ about Medicaid expansion, Kasich is doing his duty, said Robert Bennett, a former state party chairman and a Republican National Committee member.

Members unhappy with the expansion will credit Kasich for balancing the budget while also cutting taxes, Bennett said by telephone from Columbus. He said the governor was a “compassionate conservative” before former President George W. Bush talked about it.

Kasich may pay a price, if his support for expansion limits Republican turnout and excitement in 2014, said Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus. The governor won in 2010 by 2 percentage points.

Even so, Kasich, who in Congress also bucked his party to eliminate funding for the B-2 long-range bomber, seems to delight in going against the grain, Beck said in an interview.

“He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, it seems to me, as somebody who is going to be totally predictable in toeing the line with whatever his party’s ideology may be,” Beck said. “That’s one thing that voters find attractive in him.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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