West Virginia Accepts Medicaid Expansion As Time Runs Out For Other Highly-Uninsured States

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D-WV) (Credit: Raw Story)

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) announced in a press conference on Thursday that his state would take part in Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion, calling the decision “the best choice for West Virginia.” But many states still remain up in the air with their decisions, either because they haven’t decided yet or because state executives and legislators are at odds with each other on the issue — and time is running out.

Speaking at St. Francis hospital and flanked by nurses, doctors, and hospital administrators, Tomblin laid out the medical and financial case for expanding Medicaid eligibility — a conclusion that he reached after commissioning a study to examine such a move’s effects on West Virginia. “Expansion will allow us to provide insurance coverage to 91,500 West Virginians,” said Tomblin.

Indeed, West Virginia has much to gain and very little to lose by embracing the Obamacare provision. The state has abysmal health demographics, and over half of West Virginia’s uninsured population lives below 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). These poor and vulnerable populations would gain access to health coverage under the Medicaid expansion, leading the Kaiser Family Foundation to conclude that expansion will reduce the number of uninsured West Virginians by a staggering 67 percent.

Those numbers likely led Tomblin to his decision. But the moderate Democrat has an advantage that governors of other conservative — and highly uninsured — states don’t: the almost assured support of his legislature. Democrats hold a supermajority in the state Senate and an eight seat edge in the House of Delegates, and both of West Virginia’s U.S. senators also support expanding Medicaid, making intraparty barriers unlikely.

The same cannot be said of Republican Govs. Jan Brewer (AZ) and Rick Scott (FL), who have been lobbying for Medicaid expansion after intense pressure from hospital associations and advocates for the poor. Their Republican-controlled state legislatures have been bending over backwards to stop it from happening. Although there is no hard deadline for expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, many of these states’ legislative sessions are quickly coming to an end — meaning that if no agreement is reached soon, they won’t receive the additional federal funds and won’t be able to extend coverage to low-income residents for at least the first full year of Obamacare implementation.

Texas and Louisiana face similar issues. Although some GOP lawmakers in those states are contemplating Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe’s (D) alternative “private option” — which would take federal money and use it to help an expanded Medicaid pool buy private insurance — those efforts also remain in limbo, as former and current Republican presidential aspirants Govs. Rick Perry (TX) and Bobby Jindal (LA) have oscillated between flat-out rejecting expansion and being coy about their intentions.

This uncertainty has led to conflicting accounts of who, exactly, will end up expanding Medicaid this year — and who won’t. Although 21 states and the District of Columbia have nominally endorsed the expansion, a closer look accounting for the actions of state legislatures suggests that number may actually be closer to 17.

And even if governors and legislatures in those states eventually come to an agreement and expand Medicaid, the current infighting over the Obamacare provision risks deferring that action for at least a year. That may not seem like much, but considering that Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana alone have almost 12 million uninsured residents — about 6 million of whom are below 138 percent FPL and would likely gain insurance coverage under Medicaid expansion — it might feel like a lifetime for the American poor.