By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – Republican senators dodged a potential up-or-down vote on Medicaid expansion Monday, but the delay strategy will only work for so long.
Lawmakers must approve a so-called “welfare code” by June 30 as part of the state budget that sets the rules for how billions of state and federal dollars will be used by various agencies. Legislators also must set what requirements must be met for individual eligibility for programs funded with those dollars.
In short: no welfare code bill, no state budget.
But Senate Bill 977 is exactly the vehicle Democrats have targeted to force a vote on the expansion of Medicaid, a portion of the federal health reform law passed in 2010 that states must opt into before the end of this year.
“Hopefully sooner rather than later, we can address this,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, after Republicans pulled the bill from the schedule Monday.
Expansion advocates say it will bring in $4 billion from the federal government and offer health insurance to some 500,000 uninsured Pennsylvanians. But opponents doubt the federal cash will cover everything and fear hidden costs that could leave the state on the hook for years to come.
Politically, it’s equally tricky.
By proposing an amendment to the welfare code, Democrats hope to put Republicans on the record about whether they support or oppose the expansion. The thinking among Democrats is that when push comes to shove, enough Republicans would support the expansion to overcome the 27-23 GOP majority in the state Senate.
It would be a momentum-boosting win for Democrats, would put more pressure on Gov. Tom Corbett to accept the expansion and would provide fodder for campaign ads attacking Republicans who voted against it.
State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the bill was pulled from the schedule Monday to keep the Senate from “getting out in front of the governor.”
“It’s an issue that we hope to deal with sometime this month,” he said.
Corbett is still awaiting more answers from the federal government and seems to be specifically negotiating a way to maintain the state’s nationally recognized Children’s Health Insurance Program. Under other provisions of the federal health reform law, the state may have to shut down that program as part of the Medicaid expansion.
Corman said members of the state Senate were not prepared to dump CHIP.
But Hughes promised to use any and all opportunities in the next few weeks to put the Medicaid expansion to a vote.
Since Republicans will have to allow a vote on the welfare code bill at some point this month, time seems to be on his side.
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