COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Gov. John Kasich implored supporters of the state's food banks on Thursday to help him convince his fellow Republicans in the Legislature to extend Medicaid coverage to thousands of low-income Ohio residents.
"I need you in there talking to Republicans particularly about what this means," Kasich told a gathering of representatives from food banks across the state and the farmers they work with to get food.
The GOP controls both chambers of the Legislature, whose approval Kasich needs to expand coverage under the taxpayer-funded health insurance program.
"They have good hearts, but we have to reach some of the hearts of the people that aren't yet convinced," Kasich said of his Republican colleagues.
Under President Barack Obama's signature health care law, Medicaid expansion was initially mandatory. But the U.S. Supreme Court made it optional for states.
Kasich included his decision to expand coverage in his two-year state budget proposal. State lawmakers are currently holding hearings on the plan.
Many Republicans are averse to the Democratic president's law and resistant to expanding government programs.
Mike Dittoe, a spokesman for the Ohio House Republicans, said GOP lawmakers aren't questioning Kasich.
"The debate surrounding the governor's plan is, for some members, whether or not we are in a fiscal position to add more people to the state's Medicaid rolls," Dittoe said. "And really, the bigger question is whether or not the federal government will live up to its commitment?"
The federal-state health program for the poor already provides care for one of every five residents in the state. Currently, 2.3 million people in Ohio are covered under the nearly $19 billion Medicaid program.
The federal government will pay the entire cost of the Medicaid expansion for the first three years, gradually phasing down to 90 percent — still well above the current level of 64 percent. Even at those generous rates, however, some state lawmakers say they fear being stuck with long-term costs.
Dittoe said the GOP caucus believes in helping the poor and less fortunate in some way. "It's a matter of how we go about doing that."
The state would see $13 billion from the federal government over the next seven years to cover those newly eligible for Medicaid, according to the Kasich administration. Roughly 366,000 Ohio residents would be eligible for coverage under the expansion beginning in 2014.
The federal law is using health insurance exchanges to allow higher-income people to buy health plans. But without the expansion, there would be a group of people who would likely go uncovered. With the expansion, an adult without children earning up to $15,415 can be added to Medicaid.
Speaking at the event across the street from the Statehouse in Columbus, Kasich told food bank supporters on Thursday that he sees a link in their missions to help those less fortunate.
"We've got to organize here soon," he said. "We gotta be over there in that building on Medicaid expansion. No is not acceptable, no is not acceptable."
Kasich is one of eight Republican governors to endorse the expansion despite misgivings about the health care overhaul. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became the latest GOP governor to announce his plans on Tuesday. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott said last week he would support expansion.
Asked whether having additional Republican governors on board with the idea would help ease concerns of conservative lawmakers, Kasich told AP, "I think so. Sure."
The governor said he wanted lawmakers to feel good about the expansion.
"We can prevent poverty through this program," he said in an AP interview after Thursday's event. "We can help deal with poverty through this program."
Kasich said he wanted doctors, hospitals and "social service activists" to encourage the Legislature to back the plan. "Go and visit. Tell them what it's about," he said.
Kasich, who faces re-election in 2014, also encouraged the food banks' supporters in his appearance Thursday not to align themselves to a political party.
"Now I'm not telling you to go Republican — that's not what I'm telling you," he said.
"You link yourself to people who care," he said. "If you go into a political environment and you favor one over another, what happens when the one that you favor's not in?"
Ann Sanner can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/asanner .