U.S. governors want Congress to keep funding health benefits for poor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Republican governors on Thursday urged Washington lawmakers to keep funding health benefits for millions of low-income Americans, even as Congress is working to repeal Obamacare, President Barack Obama’s landmark health insurance law.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Ohio Governor John Kasich, one of 10 governors who met Republican lawmakers in Washington, suggested that those who gained Medicaid coverage under an Obamacare-financed expansion could instead be given either premium subsidies or tax credits for buying private health insurance.

Medicaid is the U.S. government health insurance program for the poor. An expansion of Medicaid with federal funding was one of the larger provisions of Obamacare when Congress passed the law in 2010. States were allowed to choose whether to adopt the Medicaid expansion, and 31 states including Ohio did so.

But if that expansion is cut and not replaced as part of the repeal of Obamacare that congressional Republicans are working on now, at least 10 million low-income people could lose their health insurance.

“There are some fundamental things that we can do that can settle people down, so they are not worried they are going to lose their coverage, but at the same time bring significant changes to the Obamacare package,” Kasich, a former Republican presidential candidate, told reporters after the meeting with other Republican governors and lawmakers hosted by the Senate finance committee.

Ending Obamcare was a campaign promise of Republicans including President-elect Donald Trump.

But Thursday’s conversation underlined anxiety about the Obamacare repeal process and the fears that people will lose their health insurance before a replacement is found.

“It ain’t gonna happen. Nobody’s going to lose coverage,” Republican Senator John Cornyn said as he left the meeting, adding that he thought Kasich had offered some “creative” ideas for dealing with Medicaid costs.

Congress voted last week to start dismantling Obamacare, despite concerns about not having a replacement ready. More than 20 million previously uninsured Americans gained coverage through Obamacare. About half the coverage was extended by expanding Medicaid and the other half through online exchanges where consumers can receive income-based subsidies.

Republicans say a good replacement would give states more control of healthcare programs and provide more stability in health insurance premiums.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was optimistic funds for the expanded Medicaid program will keep flowing from Washington.

“I’ve been in Washington before. When you talk about cuts, you’re talking about reducing the growth level of spending,” Hutchinson said.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Cynthia Osterman