By Mary Wisniewski
(Reuters) - An Ohio panel on Thursday approved a petition designed to pressure the Republican-led state legislature to expand the Medicaid health program for the poor as part of President Barack Obama's health reform law.
The aim is to allow about 275,000 additional Ohio residents to be eligible for Medicaid under the new reform law, a proposal supported by Republican Governor John Kasich but not yet acted on by state lawmakers.
The Ohio Ballot Board, which considers proposed ballot initiatives, gave the go ahead for the group called "Healthy Ohioans Work" to start gathering about 116,000 signatures needed to get lawmakers to consider the issue.
If the coalition of businesses, health care providers, consumer advocates and labor unions gets the signatures, the proposal goes before the legislature. If lawmakers do not approve or take no action after four months, supporters can circulate another petition to get the issue before voters on the November 2014 ballot.
"Waiting to place this issue before the voters in November 2014 is not an ideal scenario," said Jon Allison, a spokesman for Healthy Ohioans Work.
Kasich, who opposes Obamacare, had endorsed the expansion of Medicaid last February, raising hopes that Ohio would join some 25 states and the District of Columbia moving forward with expanding Medicaid. Another 22 states are opposed to Medicaid expansion and three, including Ohio, are still debating the issue, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The expansion of Medicaid is a major plank of the health reform law which aims to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health insurance.
The ballot board's decision came a day after the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, Ohio's largest provider of Medicaid coverage, announced that it would cut jobs and slash five to six percent of its budget, partly because of an expected decline in federal reimbursements for the cost of treating poor people who lack insurance.
Obamacare will begin reducing payments to hospitals for uncompensated care for the poor next year. But hospitals in states that expand Medicaid are expected to require substantially less money, because more of their poor patients will have health coverage through the expansion.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Greg McCune and Tim Dobbyn)