CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tens of thousands of West Virginians will soon be eligible for Medicaid coverage after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Thursday the state would expand its program under the federal health care overhaul.
"At the end of the day, we have weighed the options and believe expanding Medicaid is the best choice for West Virginia," Tomblin said to a crowd of more than 200 people gathered outside St. Francis Hospital.
About 91,500 people are expected to seek coverage after the change takes effect, according to a study Tomblin commissioned. The federal government will pick up most of the tab - about $5.2 billion over the next 10 years - but West Virginia will pay about $375 million over that time period as well.
The costs would be greater if the state did nothing, Tomblin said.
"Our tax dollars would pour into other states that do expand, our businesses will be subject to additional taxes and our hospitals would lose significant financial resources," he said.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare by supporters and opponents alike, greatly expands public health care coverage. That includes providing more federal funds so that states can extend programs to more people.
In June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Obamacare was legal but mandating states expand Medicaid coverage was not.
West Virginia was one of the few states that held out on making a decision.
Not everyone who will be eligible under the expanded program is expected to join, said Jeremiah Samples, director of health policy for the West Virginia Offices of the Insurance Commissioner.
Right now, people who earn 35 percent or less of the Federal Poverty Level are eligible for coverage. That's about $8,200 for a family of four. Under the expansion, those earning 138 percent or less of the federal poverty level, or about $38,046 for a family of four, can enroll.
About 350,000 people received health care through Medicaid in West Virginia this year, said Nancy Atkins, commissioner of the state Bureau for Medical Services.
The federal government has pledged to cover the entire cost for the first three years of the program. West Virginia gradually pays for a portion starting in 2017, peeking at 10 percent in 2020 and every year thereafter.
Much of the basic information about Medicaid expansion was known around the time of the Supreme Court's decision. Rob Alsop, Tomblin's chief of staff, acknowledged the decision took time but said the governor wanted more specifics about what that would mean for the state.
West Virginia has allocated up to $860,000 in federal grant funds to pay Maryland-based firm CCRC Actuaries to study health care in the state . The report was due in January, but it took longer than Alsop and others expected to get results concerning the Medicaid expansion.
"I think we've done it in a way where we pulled the trigger when we felt comfortable. I don't really look at it as a delay," Alsop said, adding he was pushing CCRC to complete its work.
"I can tell you the folks at Medicaid would have liked to have known what we were going to do six months ago, so that they won't be running full-hard through Oct. 1 to make this happen."
On Thursday, CCRC released the Medicaid expansion portion of its report, which cost about $107,000, according to Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin. The firm estimates the federal government will pay $5.2 billion for the expansion over the next 10 years, with the state responsible for an additional $375.5 million during the same period.
"With the additional money coming in from the federal government this will be able to make insurance more affordable for those people who are on insurance, and will expand coverage for better health care to all of West Virginia," Tomblin said after his speech.