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Governor walks line on health care bill

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez, who decided in 2013 to accept federal funding to expand New Mexico’s Medicaid rolls, continues to take a cautious approach to the roiling federal health care debate that could have a big impact on the state.

While some other Republican governors who accepted Medicaid expansion – like Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – have been outspoken critics of the GOP-led push to repeal Obamacare, Martinez has largely avoided the fray.

When asked Friday about her position on the latest Republican health care overhaul proposal to stall in the U.S. Senate, the state’s two-term governor issued a statement calling on Congress to keep working on legislation to eliminate taxes and fees established by Obamacare, which she described as a “complete disaster” that’s led to increased health care premiums.

“Lawmakers need to find a solution that abolishes the damaging fees imposed on working families and businesses by Obamacare and removes several taxes that hurt New Mexicans, like taxes on medicine and medical devices,” said Martinez spokesman Joseph Cueto. “There’s clearly much more work to be done.”

She did not address a key part of the legislation that would lead to an estimated $235 billion less being spent by the federal government on Medicaid over the next decade due to the repeal of an individual mandate in the health care law.

In May, Martinez said it would be “irresponsible” to express an opinion on House-approved legislation that she said was likely to change, adding said her administration was monitoring the situation.

And Martinez did not sign a letter from a group of 10 bipartisan governors – five Democrats and five Republicans – sent last week that urged the U.S. Senate to reject a federal health care overhaul proposal.

The stakes are certainly high for New Mexico.

More than 898,000 New Mexico low-income adults, children and disabled individuals were covered under Medicaid as of June, according to the Human Services Department. That’s up from 560,000 individuals in January 2013, when Martinez made the announcement she would accept additional federal funding to expand Medicaid eligibility – a key Obamacare provision.

With more than 40 percent of the state’s population currently covered by Medicaid, any loss of federal dollars – the federal government currently pays 95 percent of the cost of those receiving benefits under Medicaid expansion – could hit New Mexico hard.

Longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff described the fate of Obamacare, officially called the Affordable Care Act, as a “political hot potato” in states like New Mexico.

“We have a governor who’s sticking to the political message that Obamacare is a disaster, but being cautious because more than a quarter-million New Mexicans have received health insurance under the law’s Medicaid expansion program,” said Sanderoff, who is also the president of Research & Polling Inc.

While President Donald Trump and other critics have claimed the existing health care law has led to increased premiums and skyrocketing costs for individuals with private insurance, Democrats have said repealing the law would remove a safety net for millions of vulnerable Americans who got coverage under Obamcare and increase the rates of the uninsured.

Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation have pushed Martinez to take a stand on the Republican health care proposals, and sent the governor a letter in March expressing their concern about the legislation eliminating key parts of Obamacare.

The state’s delegation – with the exception of U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican – has over the last several months consistently opposed GOP-led efforts to repeal or reshape the landmark health care law.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, the state’s senior senator, said New Mexico would be among the “hardest hit” states if Medicaid funding were to be cut.

“Governor Martinez hasn’t lost her opportunity to weigh in on this extraordinarily important public policy debate about health care and the economy,” Udall told the Journal on Monday. “The input of governors in similar states, like Nevada and Colorado, has been extremely influential and helped bring some common sense to the debate.”

A Martinez spokesman said Monday the governor has spoken at length with Trump administration officials and several congressional leaders on health care issues, but did not provide specific details.

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has subsidized private health insurance available in all 50 states, and an optional Medicaid expansion has been accepted by 31 states, including New Mexico, and the District of Columbia. The two components cover more than 20 million people.

After several recent bills were stymied in the Senate, the White House is insisting senators try again to pass health care legislation. Multiple efforts are underway in Congress to try to find new ways to reshape parts of Obama’s health law.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.