Senate Labor committee may kill Medicaid expansion bill

By Ron Feemster
— February 18, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

The Senate Labor Health and Social Services committee has only a single bill to hear at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning. That bill is Senate File 118, a Medicaid expansion bill that may be the most controversial bill of this year’s budget session.

The compromise Medicaid expansion bill authored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) was a surprise introduction in the Senate with a 21-9 vote last Friday, but it is already facing an expected 3-2 defeat in the committee chaired by Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper).

Vote counters on the floor and in the gallery see Bernadine Craft (D-Rock Springs) and James L. Anderson (R-Casper) voting for the bill, while Scott, Leslie Nutting (R-Cheyenne) and Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) are regarded as likely “no” votes. Scott, Nutting and Peterson all voted against the introduction of the bill.

“I’m still hopeful we can get it out of committee,” said Craft, who estimates that the bill would have a fighting chance on the Senate floor. She estimated on Monday evening that the bill would have 13 of the 16 needed votes to pass in the Senate.

“Sen. Scott agreed to move the hearing to Room 302, a larger room, so that we could hear more testimony,” Craft said. “That testimony may move one of the ‘no’ votes.”

Last year, Scott moved a Medicaid expansion bill that he disagreed with to the Senate floor with a rare “do not pass” recommendation. The state needed to address the issue of providing health care to 17,600 people who would qualify for Medicaid but are too poor to buy subsidized insurance, he said at the time. But this year he says the Senate lacks time to address a bill unless it is likely to pass. There is only so much time, and the Senate has too many bills in the hopper.

“Last year I sent it to the floor for the debate,” Scott said Tuesday afternoon. “A budget session is different. If we send a bill to the floor that cannot pass, we kill a bunch of other bills. We’ve had our public debate this year. I would have no problem letting it die in committee.”

Rothfuss says he has spoken to nearly every member of the Senate since the bill was introduced last week and discussed the bill with members of the committee. He wants to see the Senate as a whole address the bill.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie)

“It’s an important enough bill that it’s worth the time,” Rothfuss said. “The budget will pass. It will be balanced. We do have time. We might have to work late on a few nights, but that’s why they pay us the big bucks.”

Meanwhile, activists, lobbyists and constituents are reaching out to committee members. Scott’s friends and detractors alike say that he has close ties to the Wyoming Medical Center, whose CEO is on the record favoring Medicaid expansion. Nutting’s district is home to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, which also favors expansion. But it is not clear that constituent pressure is having an effect.

“The hospital is saying some unrealistic things,” said Nutting, a first-term senator who was elected as a write-in candidate with the support of the Wyoming Liberty Group. “They are looking to get a lot more benefit from the bill than they will really receive. I’m a strong ‘no’ vote on this issue.”

The clock is ticking for poor Wyoming residents, not to mention for the state General Fund. As of January, the federal government has begun paying 100 percent of the health care costs of the poor, but only in states that expand Medicaid.

“My concern is, if not this bill, then what?” Rothfuss said. “We’ve done an admirable job of kicking the ball down the road since 2010. Now that we’re up against a deadline, we’re faced with a choice between Senate File 118 and nothing.”

In fact, there will be a final act for Medicaid expansion if it fails in committee on Wednesday morning.

“We’ll try to get this bill or something like it in as a budget amendment,” Rothfuss said. “But I’m hoping it will advance in committee. At the very least, I hope that legislators who did not have a great deal to do with the debate so far will come to the committee meeting and listen to the testimony.”

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