- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The Wyoming Senate on Wednesday voted down a bill endorsed by an interim legislative committee that would have allowed the expansion of the Medicaid program in the state.

The Senate voted 16 to 14 against considering a bill endorsed by the joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. The bill would have allowed the use of Medicaid funds to pay private health insurance premiums.

Sen. Bernadine Craft, a Rock Spring Democrat, spoke for the bill. She says she’s still hopeful the Legislature will approve some form of Medicaid expansion.

“I want us to get something on the floor, I want us to do something,” Craft said after the vote. “I hope we can keep something alive, because I think it’s a critical thing for us to do for the citizens of Wyoming to at least debate this on the floor.”

The action leaves another committee bill pending in the Wyoming House. The so-called Medicaid Fit bill would offer recipients more limited benefits than the usual Medicaid program. Other bills sponsored by individual lawmakers that take other approaches to Medicaid expansion also are pending.

Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, is chairwoman of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. She said Wednesday she expects that a vote on whether to introduce the Medicaid Fit bill could happen Friday in the House.

The Legislature last year rejected $50 million in federal funds for the expansion, which could offer health insurance to roughly 17,600 people in the state.

Expanding Medicaid to cover adults whose salaries are just above the federal poverty level is an essential platform of the federal Affordable Care Act. It’s also become a rallying cry for Wyoming Democrats.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, told lawmakers in his State of the State address Monday that he remains opposed to Medicaid Expansion.

Under Mead’s leadership, Wyoming joined with other states a few years ago in a constitutional challenge to the law. That resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that mainly upheld the constitutionality of the law, which requires people to obtain health insurance.

Mead and other critics have said they don’t trust federal promises to continue to foot the cost of Medicaid expansion. The federal government has pledged to pay all the cost of expanding the program at first and then proposes to reduce the federal share to 90 percent after a few years.

The Wyoming Health Department has projected that expanding the Medicaid program would save the state money by getting people off of other programs.

Health Department Director Tom Forslund has said that if the state doesn’t expand Medicaid, the state’s Medicaid program likely will need an infusion of nearly $80 million in state general funds in coming years. He has said expanding the program promises the state nearly $50 million in savings.

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, is chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. He spoke against the bill the Senate defeated Wednesday.

“The vote you saw on the bill this morning is probably typical of what you’ll get (with the remaining Medicaid expansion bills),” Scott said after the vote. “It doesn’t have the votes to pass.”

Wyoming is among the majority of states that opted to rely on the federal government to operate its health insurance exchange, meaning an Internet site where citizens can shop for federally approved health care coverage. The federal site was plagued with problems when it started up in October but officials say it has improved recently.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued an update on Wednesday saying that 5,307 people in Wyoming had signed up for approved health insurance plans as of Feb. 1.

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