2012-07-05 / Local & State

Corbett May Face Big Decision On Pennsylvania HealthCare

By Marc Levy

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Gov. Tom Corbett and state lawmakers now appear to have more leeway in deciding whether to go along with an expansion of Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program to cover more people, because of Thursday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding President Barack Obama’s historic health care overhaul.

However, Corbett said his administration has not had enough of an opportunity to analyze the ruling to answer questions about it, and he did not say when he would be able to give more information.

Corbett also harshly criticized the law in a three-minute statement he read in his ornate Capitol reception room, but said his administration would comply with it.

“While I am disappointed in the result of this ruling, respect for the law, and for the process of the law, even when we disagree, is part of our democracy,” Corbett said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Thursday afternoon that he had not read the court’s decision, and he had not received any legal analysis from Senate lawyers or Corbett administration lawyers.

But if the decision of whether to expand subsidized medical care for the poor is truly left to the states, then it becomes a budget issue, meaning lawmakers will have input, Corman said.

The decision will turn on the state’s financial situation – particularly with sluggish tax collections lately and public employee pension costs spiraling higher in the next five years, Corman said.

“Whether there’s an appetite will depend on the circumstances at the moment,” he said. “But I can foresee it being a difficult lift.”

In the Republican-controlled Capitol, Corbett has targeted state-funded programs for the poor for cutbacks or elimination to keep his no-new-taxes pledge, cut business taxes and balance a budget amid otherwise sluggish tax collections.

As Pennsylvania’s attorney general in 2010, Corbett joined other states in a now-unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn the provision in the law that requires most Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty.

Another element of the court’s decision dealt with the law’s expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state partnership created half a century ago to help states pay for medical and longterm care for the poor and disabled.

The high court said the expansion could proceed, but only as long as the federal government does not threaten to withhold states’ entire Medicaid allotment if they do not participate in the expansion.

That expansion would require states, starting in 2014, to raise Medicaid eligibility to people or families whose income is up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $30,600 for a family of four. Pennsylvania’s Medicaid eligibility is not that generous for all children and adults under 65. If the Corbett administration decides to participate, an additional 500,000 or so people could sign up for Medicaid through 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The U.S. Census estimated that about 1.37 million Pennsylvania residents, or about 1 in 11, are currently uninsured.

The federal government would pick up the lion’s share of the tab of the expansion, but Pennsylvania taxpayers would still have to pay for a portion.

In a May 2010 report, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that cost to be an extra $1 billion in Pennsylvania over six years beginning in 2014, based on the lower of two projected participation rates. The higher of the two participation rates would double that cost to $2 billion.

Medicaid already serves one in six Pennsylvanians and consumes about one-fifth of the state budget.

Beyond that, the Corbett administration has worked toward setting up a health insurance exchange required by the law in 2014.

In Philadelphia, tea party activists expecting the court to strike down the law had gathered in front of Independence Hall on Thursday. Disappointed, they insisted the fight over the law was far from over.

Mary Ellen Jones, a member of the Delaware County Patriots, said she thinks voters will be especially motivated to elect candidates who will try to repeal the law.

In Harrisburg, health care activists gathered on the steps of the Capitol to highlight the benefits of the law and laud the court’s decision as a step toward ensuring that people don’t die or let diseases go untreated for lack of health insurance.

Neil Bisno, the president of a unit of Service Employees International Union that represents 20,000 health care workers in Pennsylvania, said his organization will press the Corbett administration to raise the Medicaid eligibility limit and set up the insurance exchange.

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