Medicaid expansion passes committee

After over a year of advocacy, studies, political maneuvers and pressure, the word around Harrisburg was that a state Senate committee would vote on an expansion to the state’s Medicaid program, which is outlined in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The vote, being considered by the Pennsylvania Senate Health and Welfare Committee, took place on Friday night and passed 9-2.

The Senate is set to finish its budget negotiations by the end of the weekend, pass a bill, get it to the House, then back to the governor for signing.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, goes into full effect in 2014, so if Pennsylvania is to expand Medicaid to those citizens whose income is 133 percent of the federal poverty rate (the new standard under the health care law), now is the time to do so.

To make matters more pressing, some legislators have insisted that a portion of the federal cash infused into the state government after the expansion could be used to fund Philadelphia’s schools.

“All the negotiations that we’ve had over the last few weeks, everything’s going in the right direction. I’m happy the Republicans have finally heard our plea,” says Senator Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), a strong supporter of the Medicaid expansion. “It’s not done until it’s done, but I feel we’re going in the right direction.”

Hughes has held a number of public meetings on Medicaid and even attempted to use a political maneuver to force a vote on his Senate Bill earlier this year. He noted that the negotiations are with regard to work-share programs, minimum co-pays, and factors surrounding implementation of the law. A majority of the Legislature, the Corbett administration, and the federal government will have to agree to the rules of the expansion.

Which may prove tough. Thirty-three House Republicans signed onto a letter earlier today noting they would tank the entire budget if Medicaid were included. And assuming House Democrats vote against the Senate’s version of the bill (the House bill was along party lines), this could be a long process.

Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania, who successfully lobbied Gov. Corbett to reject a state-based health care exchange, sent an email to supporters saying it stands “in solidarity” with those 33 Republicans.

When asked about the Republicans in revolt, Hughes remained upbeat. “Our indication is that we have enough members of the House of Representatives to support final passage. I will not speak negatively of the 33 House members,” he noted, though added: “They’ll have to let their own personal conscience dictate what’s more important: making  an ideological statement or finding health insurance for half-a-million people and putting almost 40 thousand people back to work. We’re going to side on people getting jobs, we’re going to side on people getting health insurance. That’s the statement we’re making.”

In addition to the negotiations going on in the Legislature surrounding Medicaid, PW reported earlier this week that numerous protesters from all over the state had descended upon Harrisburg to make their voices heard—and do what they could for a positive result on health care. Those protesters came from Philadelphia, Erie, Altoona, Pittsburgh, and several other cities.

Andre Butler, of Northeast Philadelphia, is one of those protesters. He took a bus to Harrisburg on Tuesday and has remained there since. After speaking with him earlier this week about the protest, we caught up with him again today, by phone, to see how he’s been holding up.

“I’m tired, honestly, but I’m alright,” he says. “We’re doing what we need to do for the rights of our people.”

Butler was one of those protesters who attempted to sleep in the Capitol earlier this week. When he was ushered out of the building, he says he and others stayed in a local Quaker meeting house, and has been there each night since.

Butler notes that his goal was to make his voice heard and after a vote happens—assuming it does—“we’re going to caucus amongst ourselves and make the decision of…whether this was the ultimate victory, or, you know, if we can claim victory.” And that may not happen, he says, until the budget is signed.

Gov. Corbett has made it an issue to get the budget done on time every year of his reign—the opposite of his predecessor, former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Butler also noted that legislators had been very supportive of their efforts this week.  A sentiment Hughes shared.

“[The protesters have] put a real human face on this issue. Most of us, we get lost in numbers and calculation and analysis and policy pieces and things of that nature,” he says. “Every member who’s walked past them, who has talked with them, has heard from them, is reminded of their humanity.”

Note: Some of the language in this article has been updated to reflect that the Health and Welfare Committee passed the amendment on Friday night, after this story was originally written.

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