By Kim Palmer and Jo Ingles
CLEVELAND/COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Ohio Governor John Kasich plans to bypass the state's Republican-dominated legislature to expand Medicaid by using $2.5 billion in federal funds from Obamacare, his office said on Friday, breaking with other conservatives in his state.
Kasich, a Republican who otherwise opposes the Affordable Care Act, requested that the Ohio Controlling Board, a special legislative panel composed of six legislators and one Kasich appointee, approve use of the federal funds to expand Medicaid when the board meets October 21.
The aim is to allow about 275,000 additional low-income Ohio residents to be eligible for Medicaid under the reform law, a proposal supported by Kasich but not yet acted on by state lawmakers.
Kasich endorsed the Medicaid expansion last February, raising hopes that Ohio would join 25 states and the District of Columbia in either moving forward with expanding Medicaid or requesting modifications to the plan. The expansion of Medicaid is a major plank of President Barack Obama's health reform law, which aims to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health insurance.
Greg Moody, director of Kasich's Office of Health Transformation, said the move was "well within the authority of the administration" as it involves federal money and not state spending.
He said the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and most provider groups and family advocates support the expansion.
The Board has four Republican and two Democrat legislators, along with the Kasich appointee.
One of the Republican board members, Ohio State Representative Ron Amstutz, said he had "grave concerns" about the proposal.
"Based on our solid track record of passing tough bills, I would expect a far superior and more creative solution by legislative enactment than what I fear may result from effectively crimping the legislative process," Amstutz said in a statement.
Tom Zawistowski, executive director of the Portage County Tea Party, said Ohio opponents of Obamacare are "disappointed" with Kasich's decision.
"Medicaid expansion is the tip of the spear of Obamacare," said Zawistowski. "So we are extremely disappointed that the government chose to take this back door-path to try to ram it down our throats."
More than 8 million Americans are expected to receive health coverage under the new Medicaid definition in 2014.
The state received approval Thursday from the Obama administration to use $2.5 billion in federal funds to extend Medicaid to Ohioans whose income is no higher than 138 percent than the federal poverty level. That means that households with an annual income of $32,499 or less would become eligible for the program, according to the governor's office.
If the Board approves the plan, the state could begin extending coverage on January 1, according to the Kasich administration. The funds will be available at the beginning of 2014 through June 2015.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer in Cleveland and Jo Ingles in Columbus; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Dan Grebler)