Ohio governor uses faith in Medicaid expansion bid

AP News
Posted: Feb 22, 2013 3:44 PM
Ohio governor uses faith in Medicaid expansion bid

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Gov. John Kasich isn't just highlighting dollars to persuade state lawmakers to support extending Medicaid coverage to thousands of more low-income state residents. He's also appealing to their faith.

Kasich, one of a small but growing number of Republican governors on board with Medicaid expansion, is openly using his Christianity to tell his fellow GOP legislators that the weak and vulnerable should not be left behind.

He is one of seven Republican governors so far to propose expanding the taxpayer-funded health insurance program — though he appears to be standing apart in using his faith to inspire believers.

The Bible runs his life "not just on Sunday, but just about every day," he said in his annual State of the State address Tuesday.

"And I've got to tell you, I can't look at the disabled, I can't look at the poor, I can't look at the mentally ill, I can't look at the addicted and think we ought to ignore them," he told the audience of about 1,700 lawmakers, state officials and other guests.

How much weight his pitch carries depends on whether conservative lawmakers can get past their worries about the federal law and how much it could cost.

The federal money that comes with the expansion isn't lost on Kasich. He has also framed his decision as recapturing Ohio taxpayers' federal money.

The federal government will pay the entire cost of the Medicaid expansion for the first three years, gradually phasing down to 90 percent, still well above the Ohio's current level of 64 percent.

Ohio would see $13 billion from the federal government over the next seven years to cover those newly eligible for Medicaid, according to the Kasich administration. Roughly 366,000 Ohio residents would be up for coverage under the expansion beginning in 2014.

The Medicaid expansion is one of the key components of the federal Affordable Care Act. Of the nearly 30 million people expected to gain insurance coverage under the law, about half would get it from the Medicaid expansion.

Many Republicans are averse to Democratic President Barack Obama's signature health care law and resistant to expanding government programs.

Kasich — who says he sees Medicaid expansion as separate from the overall law, which he opposes — will have to convince Republicans who control the Legislature to back him, despite the fact that many dislike the federal law's mandated coverage and campaigned against it months ago.

The governor exhorted them in Tuesday's speech to set politics aside as they weigh their choices.

"Put it in your family," Kasich said. "Put somebody that is in your family who becomes the wayward child. And they come home one day, they can't get a job. Put it on your doorstep, and you'll understand how hard it is."

Kasich was raised Catholic and worships regularly in an Anglican church. For more than 20 years, he has met every other Monday with a small group of men to study the Bible. And he has written a book about how the experience has helped him in his search for answers.

Even lawmakers who look to their religious beliefs for guidance say there are other factors to consider.

State Rep. Robert Sprague, a Republican from Findlay, Ohio, said he does think about taking care of those less fortunate. "In the Bible, Jesus makes mention of this," he said.

But there are other aspects to think about, too, Sprague said, namely whether the federal government will keep its promise to fund Medicaid and the sustainability of the nation's health care system.

"All of those things have to come together," he said. "The question is, is this the best way that we can do this?"

State Rep. Jim Buchy, a Republican from Greenville, Ohio, was raised in a Christian home and says he tries to live life in that manner.

"My faith has a bearing on every decision I make about every subject we deal with around here," he said in an interview. Buchy hasn't made up his mind on whether the state should expand Medicaid. For him, the decision comes down to three words, he said: "Follow the money."

"What we have to weigh is at what level can we provide services and still be able to pay for it without upsetting the plan to grow the economy and create more jobs," Buchy said.

House Speaker William Batchelder and Senate President Keith Faber haven't endorsed the Medicaid proposal. They say their GOP caucuses will need time to evaluate it.

Batchelder, who said he belongs to the same church as Kasich, acknowledged after Tuesday's speech that the governor's pitch was compelling.

Asked whether it would strike a chord with lawmakers, Batchelder said, "Oh, sure. No question."

No other Republican governors backing the expansion appear to have gone as far as Kasich in using religious arguments, though Florida Gov. Rick Scott also has gone beyond the numbers in explaining his plans.

Scott, who like Kasich is a vocal critic of the federal law, said Wednesday that he gained new perspective after his mother's death last year.

He said she taught him that "America's greatness is largely because of how we value the weakest among us."


Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo and Kelli Kennedy in Miami contributed to this report.