Senators renew push for Medicaid expansion debate

“Truthful Tuesday” protesters in 2014 urged state lawmakers to expand Medicaid, but lawmakers never took it up, in part because of a threatened veto by the govern. A bipartisan group of senators is pushing for renewed debate this year.

COLUMBIA — A bipartisan group of senators plans to push for S.C. lawmakers to accept federal health care money that Gov. Nikki Haley and other Republicans have previously rejected.

A state budget amendment would allow more of South Carolina’s poorest residents access to health care through new money from the federal government. Expanding Medicaid, which cares for the poor and disabled, was a part of the rollout of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Many GOP governors, including Haley, have opposed expanding Medicaid, fearing that Washington would eventually stick them with costs that could balloon.

Sens. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia; Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet; Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek; and John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, are calling for debate during upcoming budget talks, according to a news release Monday from AARP South Carolina, which supports the change.

“The amendment would establish ‘Healthy SC’ and provide a private option plan for health care,” according to the news release. “South Carolina continues to daily lose federal dollars that could provide health care for South Carolina residents.”

A private option means that insurers would control the flow of Medicaid dollars rather than the state. But the mechanics of how the new Medicaid money would come to the state and private insurers would be subject to an agreement between the state and federal government, said Sue Berkowitz, a director at the S.C. Appleseed Justice Center, which backs expansion.

“Each state takes this model and tweaks it in a way that makes it specific for their state,” Berkowitz said.

The idea is similar to a plan used in Arkansas. Cleary said that he was not yet sure whether South Carolina should follow in Arkansas’s footsteps, but he wants the Legislature to debate the issue.

“Supposedly it saved Arkansas a lot of money and it helped get the uninsured off the rolls,” Cleary said. “Is that something we should do? I don’t know.”

A House Republican introduced a Medicaid expansion measure in 2013, but it was never debated, in part because Haley has vowed to veto it. Last year, protesters held “Truthful Tuesday” rallies at the Statehouse to urge lawmakers to expand Medicaid.

“Governor Haley has been fighting to turn back ObamaCare since she took office — because it’s a budget busting, job killing disaster — and no matter how many times legislators re-introduce it she’ll keep fighting it because it’s bad for our state,” said Haley press secretary Chaney Adams.

The expansion would cover anyone who earns up to around $15,800 per year, an estimated 340,000 people in the Palmetto State. The federal government has told states it would cover the costs of providing health care to those people through 2016 but states would have to start contributing in 2017. Under the plan, the federal government would still contribute 90 percent of the costs.

Lauren Sausser contributed to this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.