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A Wyoming legislative committee has voted against expanding Medicaid to offer coverage to about 20,000 low-income residents

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — A Wyoming legislative committee voted Wednesday to reject Gov. Matt Mead's suggestion that the state expand Medicaid to offer coverage to about 20,000 low-income residents.

The Joint Appropriations Committee voted to strip Medicaid expansion out of the state Health Department budget in the recommendations it will send to the full Legislature.

Lawmakers convene in Cheyenne next month to craft a two-year state budget. Despite Wednesday's committee vote, the full Legislature could still consider a stand-alone bill on the expansion issue or consider it as a proposed amendment to the committee's budget recommendations.

Mead was an early opponent of Medicaid expansion but has come around to supporting it, saying Wyoming can't afford to see millions in available federal funds heading to other states. His administration has estimated that approving the expansion would save the state over $30 million over the coming two years by reducing demand for other health services.

The vote to reject the expansion money leaves the appropriations committee faced with cutting other funding requests to make up the difference.

Medicaid expansion is a key element of the federal Affordable Care Act. The law has withstood several efforts by congressional Republicans to repeal it in recent years.

The overwhelmingly Republican Wyoming Legislature last year rejected Mead's call to expand Medicaid. Many lawmakers say they don't trust federal promises to continue funding if the state expands the program.

Mead has said he believes it's particularly important for Wyoming to accept Medicaid expansion in this year's legislative session considering the state's energy-based economy is in a downturn.

Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, made the motion to remove Medicaid expansion from the Department of Health budget.

Speaking at the committee meeting in Cheyenne, Stubson said he's concerned Medicaid expansion would pull people out of the private insurance market and put them on public insurance.

Stubson also said he's concerned about the "method and manner" in which the expansion has been proposed. Stubson said he disagreed with Mead's approach of proposing Medicaid expansion in his proposed state budget. Stubson said handling it that way wouldn't allow lawmakers to impose requirements they've considered in the past such as specifying that people who receive benefits must work or undergo wellness checks.

Stubson also said he's concerned that it would be difficult for Wyoming to reverse course if it ever accepts Medicaid expansion. He said he's not convinced that "once we jump onto this train, we can ever get off, or ever change it."

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, seconded Stubson's motion. He said he's seen research that expanding Medicaid coverage has reduced the labor force and hurt the economy in other states.

"When we talk about that we're turning down all this money, you have to be aware that there's no magic pot of Obamacare money," Perkins said.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, spoke against Stubson's motion. She said the state accepts billions in federal funds for other programs.

"All of us here are doing the hard job of trying to balance this budget," Connolly said, adding that the state needs the Medicaid funding to make ends meet.

Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, also said Wyoming shouldn't turn its back on the federal funding. "Why not bring those tax dollars home?" he said.

A group of Medicaid expansion supporters, calling themselves Healthy Wyoming, held a press conference after the committee vote. The group includes the Wyoming Hospital Association, which has lobbied for Medicaid expansion in recent years to try to reduce what it says is more than $114 million a year its member hospitals provide to the uninsured in the state.

Eric Boley, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said Wednesday that his members are disappointed with the committee vote.

"It seems to be the only federal program we're willing to turn our back on," Boley said of Medicaid expansion. "We'll take highway funds, we'll take all other appropriations from the feds, but because it's attached to 'Obamacare,' we're willing to turn our backs on it."

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