Chris Christie Joins Growing Number Of GOP Governors Accepting Obamacare’s Medicaid Expansion

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has accepted Obamacare’s optional expansion of the Medicaid program, which will extend insurance coverage to an additional 300,000 low-income people in the state. As Republican opposition to the health care reform law finally begins to wane, Christie is the eighth GOP leader to agree to expand the Medicaid program under Obamacare — and the first potential 2016 presidential contender to embrace that provision.

The governor announced his decision at a state budget address on Tuesday. Although Christie remains a staunch Obamacare opponent — and has refused to set up a health insurance marketplace, the law’s other major state-level provision — he explained that expanding Medicaid represents a smart financial decision for his state. Thanks to the increased federal funding allocated for the states that choose to add more low-income residents to their Medicaid rolls, New Jersey will reap up to $300 million in the upcoming budget year.

“It’s simple. We are putting people first,” Christie explained in his address. “We have an opportunity to ensure that an even greater number of New Jerseyans who are at or near the poverty line will have access to critical health services beginning in January 2014.” The governor added that the federal government’s funding toward the public insurance program will mean that “expanding Medicaid will ensure New Jersey taxpayers will see their dollars maximized.”

That position is resonating with a growing number of deeply conservative Republicans. Just last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott — who has been one of the health reform law’s most vehement critics — also announced his support for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. GOP governors in Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, and Nevada have also come out in favor of expanding Medicaid, which leaves nine Republican leaders who are still making up their minds about whether to increase the eligibility levels for their programs.

But the larger Republican establishment, which has increasingly moved further to the right, may not be particularly receptive to Christie’s decision. The governor has not been invited to speak at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference because he is “simply not a conservative in the eyes of organizers” — largely, as the National Review suggests, because of his positions on Medicaid and gun violence prevention.