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N.H. Medicaid Expansion Group Meets

Concord — The special commission that will study the potential expansion of New Hampshire’s Medicaid system met yesterday for the first time and will begin its research in earnest next week.

Jim Varnum, a retired hospital president, was the unanimous choice to lead the commission, which has nine voting members. Varnum was president of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital from 1978 to 2006 and was appointed to the commission by Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, who supports Medicaid expansion.

The commission spent about an hour yesterday getting organized. It’ll meet next Tuesday at 1 p.m. to discuss the basics of New Hampshire’s Medicaid program, and July 23 at 9 a.m. to review various studies dealing with the possible expansion of Medicaid in the Granite State.

Varnum said he hopes the panel will complete its fact-finding by the end of September or “a few weeks earlier.” Its final report is due Oct. 15.

Expanding Medicaid to cover adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line is one of the pillars of President Obama’s 2010 federal health care reform law. The federal government would cover 100 percent of the cost of the expansion for the first three years, between 2014 and 2016, and pay at least 90 percent in future years.

When the Supreme Court in June 2012 ruled Obamacare was constitutional, it also decided that states’ participation in the Medicaid expansion should be optional, not mandatory. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have decided to expand their programs, while 21 states opted against it, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. New Hampshire is one of six states still undecided on the issue.

Hassan and the Democratic-controlled House wanted to expand New Hampshire’s Medicaid program in the state budget that went into effect July 1, adding an estimated 58,000 low-income residents to the program starting next year. But the Republican-controlled Senate blocked them, instead proposing a study commission to examine the pros and cons of expansion.

The commission will issue its recommendations by Oct. 15.

“New Hampshire stands to lose $1 million per day for every day past Jan. 1 that expansion is not in place, and I am confident that once the study is complete the Legislature will seek to move quickly to implement expansion through a special session in order to improve the health and financial wellbeing of our citizens,” Hassan said in a statement last month.

Five of the commission’s nine voting members were appointed by Democrats, versus four appointed by Republicans.

The state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that opposes Medicaid expansion, was quick yesterday to declare the deck is stacked.

“While today’s first meeting already made clear that the supporters of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion have the votes to deliver a report that calls for expanding the program, that does nothing to change the reality that it would be a remarkably unwise decision for New Hampshire,” said state director Greg Moore in a statement.