S.C. Democrats push for Medicaid expansion

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 15, 2013 

— As S.C. House budget writers prepare to debate the state’s Medicaid budget this week, House Democrats made their first push to expand the joint federal and state health insurance program under the Affordable Care Act.

The federal government wants to give South Carolina $11.2 billion to allow more people to use Medicaid, the government-run health insurance program for the poor and disabled. The expansion is part of the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.

The money would pay for 100 percent of the program for the first three years. Eventually, South Carolina would have to chip in 10 percent of the cost. State health officials estimate it would cost taxpayers an extra $1 billion by 2020.

Most Republicans, including Gov. Nikki Haley, are opposed to the expansion because they say the state can’t afford it. South Carolina is struggling to keep up with rising health insurance costs even without expanding Medicaid. The state has about $292 million in new money to spend this year, and lawmakers expect the state’s health insurance costs will take most of it.

But Democrats said with the federal government paying for 100 percent of the expansion for the first three years gives the state plenty of time to come up with the money.

“Just as we came up with money to bring Boeing and BMW and all these other people here, we think the people of South Carolina are just as worthy,” Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said during a news conference on Tuesday. “We propose as Democrats that the leadership in both the House and the Senate and (the governor) do what they have not done in the past – and that is think long term.”

Thursday, members of the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a budget hearing on the state Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the state’s Medicaid program. And Wednesday, Gov. Nikki Haley will deliver her annual State of the State address, where she is expected to lay out her 2013 agenda.

Monday, Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer surprised many by announcing during her State of the State address that she would support Medicaid expansion in her state, saying if the state turned down the money it would just go to insure citizens of other states.

S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said he hopes Haley will make a similar announcement, noting that if South Carolina accepts the expansion money, it can always back out of the program in three years when the money runs out.

“What we’re hoping is the Republicans in this chamber can do simple math,” Rutherford said. “We know that most South Carolinians if offered a raise for the next three years would take that raise even if their boss told them that after three years I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do it or not.”

But Tuesday afternoon, House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister quashed any notion that House Republicans would support Medicaid expansion.

"This is not a good deal, this is the Nanny State run amok," Bannister said in a news release. "The Democrats have provided no explanation as to how to pay for this, or if there is any path to get these people OFF of government dependence in the future.

"The House Republicans remain committed to opposing the implementation of Obamacare," he said. "We will work - within the restraints of a balanced budget - to direct precious state dollars to the people who need it the most."

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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