Arizona healthcare fight divides leaders
PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Legislature began debate late Wednesday on a state budget and proposed Medicaid expansion that has divided the state's Republican leadership.
The fight over Gov. Jan Brewer's Medicaid plan was expected to trickle into Thursday morning as a newly formed coalition of Democrats and GOP moderates maneuvered their budget through the House and Senate amid opposition from conservatives who have traditionally controlled state government.
During the floor debate, Brewer's allies largely refused to answer questions or discuss provisions in the proposed budget, drawing rebukes from conservatives who warned of unchecked government.
"How are you not embarrassed for yourself?" said Republican Rep. J. D. Mesnard of Chandler, an opponent of the expansion. "Is anyone going to stand up and give a defense?"
Senate President Andy Biggs, who has fought the Medicaid expansion for months, implored Democrats and moderate Republicans to allow for debate after he was sidelined by Brewer's supporters.
"Some don't want to have discussion and think I am trying to embarrass them. I am not trying to embarrass them. This is a massive bill," he said on the floor.
Brewer shocked many by announcing she was embracing a signature part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul in January after years battling against it. She drew support from the business community, hospitals, health care workers and patients, but many of her former Republican allies quickly labeled her a traitor.
With little notice, Brewer called lawmakers into a special session late Tuesday, allowing moderates to take over both chambers by voting to suspend normal rules and to limit debate on the budget.
The Medicaid plan would add about 300,000 people to the state's coverage, called the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. It would cover people making between 100 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level and restore coverage to more than 100,000 childless adults who lost Medicaid coverage because of a state budget crunch. About 1.3 million Arizonans already are covered by the state's plan.
Brewer's supporters introduced Tuesday an $8.8 billion budget similar to the plan approved by the Senate last month. It will not include a big "economic development" tax-cut plan backed by House Speaker Andy Tobin.
"We have a huge economic incentive in this budget - it's called Medicaid," Democratic Minority Leader Chad Campbell said. "That's a $2 billion economic incentive program right there."
As Republicans grew increasingly irate Wednesday, Brewer's office released a statement that sought to distance her from the federal health care law that allows for the Medicaid expansion.
"Arizona's Medicaid program, known as AHCCCS, has existed for three decades . going back to President Obama's college days," wrote spokesman Matthew Benson in an email. "AHCCCS is not the Affordable Care Act. It is not ObamaCare. It is the nation's gold standard in terms of cost-effective Medicaid programs."
Biggs and Tobin both argue that the federal government is likely to go back on its promise to fund the Medicaid expansion and point to Washington's huge debt.
After adjournment Tuesday, Biggs and Tobin released an angry statement rife with insults toward Brewer: "We are frustrated and bewildered by her overt hostility and disregard for the budgetary process which was already well under way."
A calmer Tobin on Wednesday took some of the blame, saying he let his efforts to change Brewer's Medicaid proposal linger too long before dumping them.
"I probably should have reached a conclusion that my option for Medicaid was not really being taken seriously a lot earlier," Tobin said. "My mistake was I probably overestimated that there was a chance to really come to an agreement on the Medicaid that was more acceptable."