COLUMBUS -- Republicans in the Ohio House said last Tuesday they'll remove language in Gov. John Kasich's executive budget proposal that would have shifted funding and programming for disabled children, following continued concerns from residents about the potential impact.
Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (R-Clarksville) said lawmakers would review the Ohio Department of Health's Bureau for Children with Medical Handicaps, or the BCMH, but changes would be handled in separate legislation, not the biennial operating budget.
"In a tight budget, this is one area which is important to us as a priority of the House of Representatives," Rosenberger said during an afternoon press conference at the Statehouse. " There's a lot of families out there that, it's not their fault. You've got a lot of parents out there that are worried. They're working five, six, seven jobs trying to make ends meet so that they can make sure their kids have every opportunity afforded to them. What we don't need to do is add to that."
Republican lawmakers have said publicly they don't support other provisions the governor included in his biennial budget proposal. In coming weeks, the Ohio House will offer a substitute version of the legislation, with an eye toward passage by the first week of May.
The Ohio Senate is holding its own hearings on the two-year spending plan, with a final version of the bill negotiated by the two chambers and sent to the governor's desk in advance of the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Rosenberger said House Republicans would roll out their changes soon.
"We're in a tight budget," Rosenberger said. "There are going to be decisions that we continue to make over the next few weeks I'm not going to comment specifically on where and how we're going to do it, because the ball's still moving, the sand's still shifting, there's a lot of different changes that we are going to make."
Melanie Amato, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health and speaking on behalf of the administration, said in a released statement, "We are committed to ensuring that Ohio's most vulnerable children get the care that they need and will work with the general assembly to find ways to make this program sustainable."
State law has mandated care for children with medical handicaps for nearly a century, with services administered through the BCMH.
According to testimony before lawmakers earlier this year by then-Health Director Richard Hodges, the program covers special care for residents who are uninsured, underinsured or whose insurance does not cover the services they need. Eligibility is based on family income, cost sharing, ability to pay and other factors, and there is no limit on the number of enrollees.
Hodges told the Ohio House Finance Subcommittee on Health and Human Services last month the state, in some cases, is covering residents twice, via the BCMH and the Medicaid program.
As a result, the bureau's unfunded liability has climbed to about $11 million, Hodges said.
Enrollment in BCMH programming has increased from about 30,200 in 2010 to more than 41,000 in fiscal 2015, according to information compiled by the Ohio Department of Health. And spending in the program has grown from $37.7 million in fiscal '13 to $40.1 million in fiscal '16.
According to information compiled as part of the executive budget, nearly 11,500 people younger than 21 received diagnostic services through bureau in fiscal 2016. Close to 40,000 clients received doctors visits, medical equipment, surgeries and hospitalizations, therapy and other services.
Kasich's executive budget proposes phasing out BCMH as of next year, establishing a new program within the Ohio Department of Medicaid to cover children with medical handicaps.
The changes have drawn widespread concern from family members of those who use the programs, fearful their services will be affected.
"This is a big program," Rep. Mark Romanchuk (R-Mansfield) said. "It's complicated, there's a lot of moving parts. That move, from Health to Medicaid, is not a small move. In the context of the budget, it's very difficult to take the time to really study that to make sure there is no interruption of services. It's too big a move, it affects too many people to try and do in a very short period of time while you're dealing with all of the other items that are in the budget."
Tuesday's press conference included comments from David Hoffman, a Marion County resident whose twin teenage daughters have cystic fibrosis. He earlier told the House Finance Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, "With the uncertainty of looming changes in health insurance coverage on the a federal level and uncertainty of Medicaid funding, now is not the time to widen the holes of the safety net, allowing Ohio's most vulnerable to slip through the cracks."
Boomer Esiason, a retired NFL quarterback, also was at the Statehouse, urging continued support for programing for disabled children. His son has cystic fibrosis, and the former Cincinnati Bengal has a namesake foundation that funds research on the disease.
"The financial stress that goes into this for families is enormous," Esiason said. "And the one thing we want to do is keep families together, and we want to make sure that we take that financial stress away from them as best we can."
Marc Kovac covers the Ohio Statehouse for GateHouse Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.