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GOP's 'no' to Medicaid becomes 'Let's make a deal'

| Sunday, March 24, 2013, 6:15 p.m.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Given the choice of whether to expand Medicaid under President Obama's health care law, many Republican governors and lawmakers initially responded with an emphatic “no.”

Now they are increasingly hedging their objections.

A new “no, but ...” approach is spreading among GOP states in which officials are still publicly condemning the Democratic president's Medicaid expansion yet floating alternatives that could provide health coverage to millions of low-income adults while potentially tapping into billions of federal dollars that are to start flowing in 2014.

The Medicaid health care program for the poor, which is jointly funded by the federal and state governments, covers about one in five people in America. Expanding it was the way Obama envisioned covering many more low-income workers who don't have insurance. The new Republican alternatives being proposed in states generally would go part of the way but cover fewer people than Obama's plan, guarantee less financial help or rely more on private insurers.

But so far, many of the Republican ideas are still more wistful than substantive. It's uncertain whether they will pass. And even if they do, there's no guarantee Obama's administration will allow states to deviate too greatly from the parameters of the Affordable Care Act while still reaping its lucrative funding. Yet a recent signal from federal officials that Arkansas might be able to use Medicaid money to buy private insurance policies has encouraged Republicans to try alternatives.

The GOP proposals could lead to another health care showdown between the White House and states, leaving millions of Americans who lack insurance waiting longer for resolution. Officials in about 30 states that are home to more than 25 million uninsured residents remain either defiant or undecided about implementing Obama's Medicaid expansion, according to an Associated Press survey.

Supporters of the Medicaid expansion have built coalitions of hospitals, business groups, religious leaders and advocates for the poor to try to persuade reluctant Republicans of the economic and moral merits of Obama's health care plan. But some Republicans believe the pressure ultimately will fall on Obama to accept their alternatives if he wants to avoid a patchwork system for his signature accomplishment.

“If the Obama administration is serious about innovative ways to bring down the cost of health care, it's going to cooperate with conservative ideas rather than continue down its one-size-fits-all, far-left-wing ideological path,” said Missouri Rep. Jay Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City.

A House committee led by Barnes has defeated Obama's version of Medicaid expansion. It is to hear public testimony on Monday on his “market-based Medicaid” alternative, which would award health care contracts to competing private insurers and provide cash incentives to patients who hold down their health-care costs.

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