Wolf stops Medicaid bill

Political Notebook

Of the scores of bills Gov. Tom Wolf is sorting through after the Legislature’s final fall session days, one is already in the bin: a plan to force able-bodied Medicaid recipients to get jobs or participate regularly in job-training programs.

The bill — cosponsored by Rep. Judy Ward, R-Holli­days­burg, among dozens of others — would have sought a waiver from the federal government to pursue work requirements for those using the program. Medicaid provides insurance, as well as home and nursing care, for those who cannot otherwise afford it.

“This legislation does not promote health coverage, access and treatment,” Wolf said in a statement Friday accompanying his veto. “Instead, this legislation increases costs, creates unnecessary delays and confusion, penalizes individuals who need health care, and terminates health coverage for those who need it the most.”

The bill was part of an ongoing battle over health care coverage, much of it waged at the state level, over the future of public health coverage. While dozens of states — including Pennsyl­vania — have expanded Medicaid availability with federal funds provided under the Affordable Care Act, some have sought to restrict access or push users into the workforce.

The Pennsylvania bill, House Bill 2138, would have created exemptions for those considered unable to work, while requiring able-bodied recipients to attend 12 job training events or work 20 hours each week. It passed the House 115-80 and the Senate 30-19 before stopping at Wolf’s desk.

Supporters of the Penn­syl­vania bill, including conservative and free-market groups, questioned Wolf’s decision and his characterization of the plan.

“Not sure he had time to read the bill,” Nathan Benefield of the conservative Common­wealth Founda­­­tion said in a tweet. “His statement certainly doesn’t describe what the bill does at all.”

In fact, the bill would explicitly require Medicaid recipients to “relinquish” coverage eligibility if they fail to meet job requirements.

ACA markets chug along

As lawmakers battled over Medicaid requirements, another hard-fought federal health program quietly survived in Pennsylvania.

The state insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, are set to continue with relatively stable rates in the coming year, state insurance officials confirmed last week. Regulators had suggested rates would remain comparable to the past year or even drop — and final data approved last week confirmed their expectations.

Many counties gained insurer options under the program, which offers plans for individual patients who do not receive insurance from their employers or other federal agencies. Rates surged in Obamacare’s early years, especially amid uncertainty in the first months of the Trump administration.

However, since efforts to fully repeal the law have failed — and since the program’s customer base has become more stable — rates have balanced out. Individ­ual market rates are set to decrease 2.3 percent on average, which small group rates will go up 2.6 percent, officials said.

The marketplaces remain popular, filling gaps left by government programs and private insurance. As of February, the individual markets counted more than 3,700 users in Blair County, more than 4,100 in Cambria County and thousands more in surrounding counties.

House race doesn’t draw money surge

A flood of outside money boosting Democratic House challengers and supporting Republican incumbents doesn’t appear to have reached the new 13th House District, but soon-to-be-released funding reports could still reveal a late shift.

In recent weeks, outside groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into ads and get-out-the-vote campaigns, particularly in key House races where Democrats hope to claw back control of the chamber from vulnerable incumbents.

None of that money, however, has made its way to the 13th District, according to federal filings. A review of independent expenditures — those done by third parties, not directly donated to candidates’ campaigns — shows nothing in the new district in the last several weeks. The newly drawn district has different boundaries from the old 9th District that covered Altoona, but remains solidly Republican.

There is no incumbent to defend in the 13th, where Altoona physician John Joyce is running on the Republican ticket against Democratic challenger and Saint Francis University Professor Brent Ottaway. While Joyce is not an incumbent, he enjoys many of an incumbent’s benefits — including some of outgoing Rep. Bill Shuster’s staff and donors.

While outside groups aren’t yet filing independent expenditures in the district, the race has already drawn a lot of money. As of July, Joyce had raised tens of thousands of dollars from conservative groups and congressional committees, but the vast majority of his war chest came from personal loans. Joyce loaned his own campaign more than $900,000 through the spring; more recent figures are not yet available.

Ottaway had just a fraction of Joyce’s funds by summer — less than $11,000, most of it from small-dollar donors. But a flurry of donations from ActBlue, a Democratic-aligned website that raises funds from the public in small bursts, reflects a national wave of enthusiasm as election day approaches.

More data could soon shed light on the 13th District race and its funding. Candidates must file pre-election finance reports by Thursday, with new information up to last week.

Email Ryan Brown at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.