COLUMBUS, Ohio - Gov. John Kasich defended his decision to turn to a legislative board to push through an expansion of Medicaid as the Ohio Supreme Court agreed Thursday to speed up its consideration of a lawsuit over the move.
Kasich said his administration did not thwart the General Assembly by putting the funding request before the state Controlling Board, a seven-member panel of mostly lawmakers that handles certain adjustments to the state budget.
"It's all within the rules," he told reporters after a transportation event on Thursday. "We're fine."
Two anti-abortion groups and six Republican lawmakers are suing Ohio's Department of Medicaid and the Controlling Board after the board cleared the way last week for Kasich's administration to spend $2.56 billion in federal dollars to cover more thousands more people in the Medicaid health program.
The Ohio Supreme Court granted a request to an expedited schedule in the case.
The plaintiffs had argued such speed was warranted because expanded Medicaid coverage takes effect Jan. 1.
Without a ruling by then, their attorney Maurice Thompson wrote, "Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans may reasonably rely upon, and be misled as to, their eligibility for Medicaid."
The U.S. government promises to pay for the expansion for three years, gradually phasing down to 90 percent.
Medicaid expansion allows those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,860 for an individual, to be eligible for the program.
"It's already done," Kasich said of expansion. "And we're moving on. And we're trying to help a lot of people."
Attorneys for the state had said there was no need for the court to rush, contending the plaintiffs had offered "only rhetoric" in support of an expedited case.
Still, state Solicitor Eric Murphy said in a court filing, Ohio wasn't opposed to a reasonably expedited briefing schedule.
At issue in the lawsuit is whether the quiet but powerful Controlling Board thwarted the intent of the Legislature when it cleared the way for federal funds to be spent on health coverage for the roughly 366,000 Ohioans who would be newly eligible under Medicaid expansion.
Kasich's administration brought the funding request to the panel, bypassing the full General Assembly. The board approved it Oct. 21 on a 5-2 vote.
Under state law, the panel is to carry out the "legislative intent" of the General Assembly regarding program goals and levels of support for state agencies.
In the two-year state budget that lawmakers passed in June, majority Republicans inserted a provision that would have barred the Medicaid program from covering the additional low-income residents allowed under the new federal health care law.
Kasich, who's also a Republican, later vetoed the item.
The governor had urged for the extension of Medicaid since he introduced his budget in February. But his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature balked, citing concerns about increasing the national debt and fears that the money from Washington could be cut off.
On Wednesday evening, the Republican leader of the Ohio House told reporters that there was support for the expansion within his caucus. But, he said, some were hesitant to express it.
"Over the years, you learn how to talk to people and find out what they're thinking," House Speaker William Batchelder said. "Not what they're saying -- what they're thinking. And there were a significant number of people in our caucus who felt pretty strongly that we had to do something in order to strengthen the Medicaid program in Ohio."
Batchelder said he wasn't pressed by Kasich's administration to change the composition of the Controlling Board to get approval for the Medicaid funding. He said he made the switch because the panelists are vying for a leadership position within the caucus.
One of his replacements voted to approve the funding.
Asked about whether the caucus as a whole supported Medicaid expansion, Batchelder said: "I would say it was pretty close. And some of them absolutely opposed it unless appropriate amendments were made to it."