By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - An Ohio legislative panel on Monday voted in favor of the state expanding its Medicaid program for the poor in a victory for President Barack Obama's signature federal health reform law.
The decision permits Governor John Kasich, a Republican who otherwise opposes the reform law known as the Affordable Care Act, to bypass the state's Republican-dominated legislature to expand Medicaid, a move strongly opposed by many Ohio conservatives.
Ohio joins 25 states and the District of Columbia in either moving forward with expanding Medicaid or requesting modifications to the plan. Medicaid expansion is a major plank of Obama's health reform law, which aims to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health insurance.
"I think Ohio and its decision to move forward will be a big incentive for others to look at both the human costs and the fiscal and economic impact," said Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health care policy.
The decision to expand Medicaid by the seventh most populous state presents a victory for the law, coming on the same day Obama has said he is "frustrated" over the problematic launch of the government website for the program.
Kasich endorsed the Medicaid expansion in February, but state lawmakers failed to act on it. Going through the Ohio Controlling Board, a special legislative panel composed of six legislators and one Kasich appointee, provided an alternate path for the governor.
The Board voted 5-2 to approve the use of $2.5 billion in federal money, which the governor has said would cover 275,000 additional low-income Ohio residents, starting in January and continuing through June 2015.
Though the expansion plan had the support of prominent medical and business groups, such as the Ohio Manufacturers' Association and the state's Chamber of Commerce, some conservatives are expected to sue. Nearly 40 Republican legislators last week formally protested Kasich's request to the board, which represents a majority of the Republican caucus in the state House.
"The basis for this government is supposed to be that everybody gets to vote," said State Rep. Louis Terhar, a Republican, on the panel's decision. "What just happened in there is that 90 percent of the people in Ohio just got disenfranchised because they didn't get to vote."
Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, a Republican, said the Senate is introducing legislation to "rein in the Controlling Board's ability to make such sweeping adjustments in budget items that are better considered by the legislature as a whole."
More than 8 million Americans are expected to receive health coverage under the new Medicaid definition in 2014. Rowland said the expanded definition will help the working poor, particularly low-income adults without dependent children.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer in Cleveland and Jo Ingles in Columbus. Editing by Andre Grenon; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Dan Grebler)