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D-NPL senator calls for bipartisanship on Medicaid

BISMARCK -- A Democratic senator was pleasantly surprised to see an expansion of Medicare in Gov. Jack Dalrymple's funding proposal for the Department of Human Services and hopes a bipartisan effort will keep it from being stripped from the legislation.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, drafted legislation after Dalrymple's budget address in December to include the federally-funded Medicaid expansion that is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2014, unaware it was already included in House Bill 1012.

Mathern withdrew his bill Thursday, "to allow for the proper focus to be placed on this initiative," he said.

Mathern said he issued a news release about the bill withdrawal to be transparent and "to signal some hope, some possibility that we can work together on some things."

Dalrymple was not available to comment for this story.

The House Appropriations Committee will first hear the bill at 9:30 a.m. today in the Roughrider room of the State Capitol Building.

The committee consists of 17 Republicans and five Democrats. Mathern said many Republicans may vote to remove the language referring to Medicaid expansion because, "it smells like Obamacare."

"It's really meeting it's biggest challenge this next week," Mathern said.

The committee will hear testimony and work on the bill through Jan. 18, where it could send it to the House floor with a "do pass," or "do not pass" recommendation.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, sits on the committee. Hawken said the Republican controlled legislature, and committee's, are pretty conservative, "but I don't think that means we don't care about people, we do," she said.

"I would like to see us put the information out there and have an open and honest discussion and decide what we can do to help the people of North Dakota," Hawken said. "I am hopeful we can all sit down and be civil and find out how to provide the best health care coverage."

The bill was requested by Dalrymple to fund the Department of Human Services and provide expanded service payments for elderly and disabled. If passed, it would appropriate additional federal funds received from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The act allows individuals under age 65 with incomes less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify for medical coverage. The entire cost of the program is paid by the federal government, Mathern said.

To put into comparison, Mathern said the annual income for a family of four at 133 percent of the federal poverty level is $30,657.

Hawken said she is planning to work with legislation that addresses Medicaid, but focused on diabetics who are not following their treatment plan.

"If we can get them to do that, it costs us less money," she said. "There are opportunities to do some positive things as far as health care goes on a wellness side."

Mathern plans to see the Medicaid expansion proposal in and out of legislation throughout the session. He said it may come down to the wire, but knows it's important for the state.

"As we go through the ideological balance, I'm hoping the last day it will still be there," he said.