CHARLESTON - The leader of West Virginia's Roman Catholic community has joined the chorus urging Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income residents.
Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the governor Friday, citing deep concerns about the health and wellbeing of West Virginians he's developed in his eight years with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and its 83,000 or so Catholics.
"Catholic social teaching supports adequate and affordable health care for all," Bransfield's letter said. "Our national and state health care policy must protect human life and dignity, not threaten them, especially for the most voiceless and vulnerable."
The federal health care law calls on states to open their Medicaid programs starting next year to cover people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That's around $32,500 for a family of four.
Nearly two-thirds of West Virginians without insurance would qualify, or around 166,000 people. Expansion supporters estimate at least 100,000 would enroll.
When it upheld the law, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that states could choose not to expand and still keep current federal Medicaid funding. At least 14 states have since done so. Tomblin is one of only two Democratic governors who have yet to decide whether to expand.
About 18 percent of West Virginians rely on Medicaid for health care, the 12th-largest program among the states when measured against population. But the state also has one of the strictest eligibility policies.
Adults must have children and earn no more than 35 percent of the poverty line, or around $8,240 for a family of four. As a result, most West Virginians on Medicaid are blind or disabled, seniors or children.
The program's existing costs - Tomblin has budgeted $900 million for the state's share of its funding in his proposed 2013-2014 spending plan - has prompted the governor to await an analysis of the financial pros and cons of expanding. Spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said the administration continues to review available information "so we may make the best decision for the state."
"We are pleased to see so many organizations involved in this important discussion," Goodwin said Monday.
Federal dollars already cover nearly two-thirds of West Virginia's Medicaid costs. The federal law promises full funding of expansion for the first three years, with the state's share gradually increasing to 10 percent by 2020. Bransfield wrote that the estimated 3.2 percent increase in the state's spending is worth the resulting health care access.
"Such an effort underscores West Virginians' traditional concern for the dignity of all," his letter said of expansion. "It reflects the teachings of Our Savior who in his own life and work reached out to heal the sick and care for the poor."
Bransfield noted that other U.S. bishops have endorsed Medicaid expansion. Supporters of increasing access to West Virginia's program include the "Our Children, Our Future" coalition of child advocacy groups.