Pennsylvania Senate panel votes to expand Medicaid

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HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania Senate took a step Friday night toward expanding Medicaid eligibility under the federal health care law with a committee vote that leaders said pointed to support in the full chamber.

But the proposal faces an uncertain future in the House of Representatives, where more than 30 Republican members signed a letter saying they are ready to oppose the state budget, due Sunday, if related legislation would expand Medicaid.

Senate Republican leaders also prepared for a late-night vote on a newly revised proposal to allow private sales of wine and liquor in Pennsylvania. Debate on the Senate floor began after midnight. Ending the state business in alcohol has been a priority of Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican majority in the House, but there has been less appetite in the Senate for swift closure of the state stores and wholesale operation.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster, said he supports ending the state's involvement in liquor sales, but he was still deciding if he would vote for a proposal that, in its form at that hour, he thought could move more quickly.

"I can't say whether the votes are there or not," he said. "I'm told it is razor-thin."

Lawmakers planned to work throughout the weekend to deliver a state budget -- and consider, at least, other major legislation -- by the end of the fiscal year Sunday night. A proposal to raise new annual funding for the state's roads, bridges and public transit systems awaits consideration today in the House, where leaders have worked for days to build a majority.

Mr. Corbett has asked legislators to send him bills on liquor privatization and transportation funding -- as well as legislation designed to reduce the cost of pensions for state and school workers -- along with the annual state budget.

Pension reform has not progressed as far in the legislative process as the other topics, and both Mr. Brubaker and Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, each deeply involved in pension reform, said Friday they believed such legislation would not reach the governor by Sunday night.

For months, the question of whether Pennsylvania will make people eligible for Medicaid coverage under the federal health care law has focused on Mr. Corbett, who has said he will not agree to expansion unless the federal government allows reforms to the state's program. But the Senate moved ahead Friday night with a committee vote attaching a proposal to expand Medicaid, subject to several conditions, to a wide-reaching bill on public welfare.

The measure cleared the Public Health and Welfare Committee with a 9-2 vote, and Senate leaders appeared certain of its passage.

"Clearly, Medicaid expansion is an issue that's going to come up before the chamber, both chambers, throughout the process of the next two days," said Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Senators said the conditions -- such as work requirements for able-bodied recipients and the ability to modify benefits -- that senators said were negotiated by Democrats and Republicans. If they are met, the state would be required to apply for approval from the federal government by Oct. 1, 2013. The proposal establishes July 1, 2014 as the target date for the state to begin participating in an expanded program.

"We're trying to set up the parameters of what we as a Commonwealth want," said Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland and chairwoman of the committee. "It's fine to say, 'Oh well, we want to expand Medicaid,' but we don't want to expand it unless we can get some of these things."

The conditions include the continuation of coverage under the state's Children's Health Insurance Program. Corbett administration officials have said some children covered under CHIP would be moved by the health care law into Medicaid.

"I think it is a fair compromise," said Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia. "I think it represents a huge step forward for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in terms of getting health care services to at least a half a million Pennsylvania residents who are working every day, making a contribution every day and the only thing that they're lacking is health insurance."

In the House, dozens of members of the Republican majority have stated publicly this week that they oppose expansion, and 33 members signed a letter saying they are willing to oppose the state budget if it is accompanied by a Medicaid proposal.

"Medicaid expansion does not belong in the budget and that does make the budget a deal-breaker," said Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield.

Kevin Harley, Mr. Corbett's press secretary, said last week that it appeared Senate Republicans were considering changes similar to those requested by the administration in its talks with federal officials. He said Friday night that the governor would examine the Senate proposal.

The possibility of a Medicaid vote drew about a dozen supporters from around the state to the Capitol, where they gathered outside Mr. Hughes's office with sleeping bags and signs. Daniel Pipkin, 21, of Homewood, who said he works full time but does not have health insurance, said he would stay until Monday if he had to.

"People do work," he said. "We deserve health insurance just like everybody else."

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141. Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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