CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The state Senate has voted to introduce a bill that would expand the Medicaid system in Wyoming, but even the sponsor says it faces long odds of becoming law.
The Senate voted 21-9 on Friday, the deadline for bill introductions, to advance the measure sponsored by Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat.
Two other Medicaid expansion bills sponsored by the Interim Labor, Health and Social Services Committee died this week in the Senate and the House.
Rothfuss told the Senate his bill would allow Wyoming to keep its Medicaid expansion options open. But speaking after the Senate vote, Rothfuss said he is not sure his bill will get out of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, where it was assigned after introduction.
Committee Chairman Charles Scott, R-Casper, has been a vocal opponent of blanket Medicaid expansion.
Expanding the federal program is an essential element of the federal Affordable Care Act. Wyoming joined with other states in an unsuccessful challenge of the federal law's requirement that people buy health insurance.
Wyoming last year rejected $50 million in federal funding to extend Medicaid coverage to 17,600 low-income adults. Gov. Matt Mead has continued to oppose Medicaid expansion, saying he doubts federal promises to continue funding.
The Wyoming Health Department projects expanding Medicaid would save Wyoming money. According to the department's figures, the state's Medicaid program likely will need an infusion of nearly $80 million in state general funds in coming years without any expansion, while expansion promises the state nearly $50 million in savings by reducing demand on other programs.
The Wyoming Hospital Association has supported expanding Medicaid. Hospitals in the state currently cover more than $200 million a year in uncompensated care for people who don't have health insurance, according to the association.
Dan Perdue, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said this week his group would support any effort to discuss Medicaid expansion in this legislative session.
In addition to saving the state money, Perdue said, "We feel it's good for patients by adding over 17,000 people to the insurance rolls."
Explaining his bill on the Senate floor, Rothfuss said it would call for traditional Medicaid expansion for the first year to give the state immediate access to federal funding.
During that first year, Rothfuss said, the state would have time to negotiate a different approach with the federal government. He said that could help some low-income people pay health insurance premiums while lower income people could still see a full Medicaid expansion.
Rothfuss said his bill would specify that the Legislature would have to vote to renew the program in a few years. He said that should alleviate concerns that the state won't be able to reverse course if the federal government reneges on its promises to fund the program.
Rothfuss said he's calling for creating a new state fund that could bank about $40 million every two years from anticipated Medicaid savings to help the state deal with any unforeseen circumstances that arise with the program.
In an interview after the Senate vote, Rothfuss said he believes many senators who voted for introduction of his bill want to debate the Medicaid expansion issue but wouldn't ultimately vote for it.
"It's an awful lot of money, and it's an awfully important policy, even if they're not going to support it in the end," Rothfuss said. "But nonetheless, it's a group of people that really does believe in open debate, the opportunity to get the ideas out there, and to give a fair hearing."