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Veterans advocates want Ohio to expand Medicaid

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Advocates for Ohio's veterans urged the state to expand Medicaid on Monday and give more low-income people access to health care because not every veteran is eligible for free care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Expanding Medicaid would make 26,000 Ohio veterans and their families eligible for the program, according to the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

Some are unable to get health care through veterans affairs because they didn't serve during wartime or they have a service-connected injury that's less than a 50 percent disability.

Advocates gathered in Columbus to urge Ohio lawmakers to approve Medicaid expansion, a main element of President Barack Obama's federal health care law.

"It will help thousands of Ohio veterans and their families, who right now have no health insurance, simply due to when they served in the military," said retired Air Force Col. Tom Moe, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Service.

Republican Gov. John Kasich supports extending the program and called for it in his budget proposal. House Republican leaders took it out of the spending plan and are reviewing the idea separately.

Opponents fear being stuck with the long-term costs of the program and some are philosophically against the idea of expanding government programs.

House Speaker William Batchelder recently said his chamber doesn't have a timeline for acting on expansion legislation.

He said many House Republicans support adding a drug test in order to become eligible for Medicaid, though other ideas are also being discussed.

The federal health law expanded Medicaid to cover low-income people making about $15,400 a year for an individual. The provision mainly benefits low-income adults who do not have children and can't get Medicaid in most states.

Medicaid also covers mental health services.

Victor Wilson, of the Ohio National Guard Association, said it would be a huge step to make "lifesaving mental health services available to those veterans who may need it the most."

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer made the expansion optional for states but kept in place a powerful financial incentive. The federal government will fully fund the expansion for the first three years, gradually phasing down to 90 percent by 2020 — still well above Ohio's current level of 64 percent.

Roughly 366,000 Ohioans will be eligible for coverage beginning in 2014 by expanding Medicaid, the health program for the poor that already provides care for one of every five residents in the state.