Kentucky residents again seek to block new Medicaid rules

Sixteen Kentucky residents have again asked a federal judge to block new eligibility requirements for Medicaid

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Sixteen Kentucky residents have again asked a federal judge to block new eligibility requirements for Medicaid, but the partial federal government shutdown could delay a decision until after the new rules take effect.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is trying to change Kentucky's Medicaid rules so some people would have to pay premiums and either get a job, go to school or do volunteer work to keep their health coverage. President Donald Trump's administration gave him permission last year to do it, but a federal judge blocked the rules in June before they could take effect.

The Bevin administration tried again, making some small changes to the proposal and re-submitting it. The Trump Administration again approved the new rules, scheduling an implementation date for April 1.

Monday, the group of 16 Kentucky residents — led by a trio of advocacy organizations — again asked a judge to block the rules. They argue the rules would harm the poorest and most vulnerable populations in Kentucky.

Shawna McComas, 36, is one of those suing to block the new rules. She has a job as a housekeeper at the University of Kentucky hospital. Her husband, who has a felony conviction, is unemployed. She said she would likely have to pay a monthly premium of between $8 and $15 a month under the new rules.

"It will be difficult to pay this every month," she said in an affidavit filed with the court. "If we don't pay the premium, we could be locked-out of Medicaid for six months."

The Bevin administration argues the new rules will save taxpayers more than $2 billion while encouraging people to become more involved in their communities.

The renewed legal challenge comes nearly three months ahead of the implementation date, giving the court enough time to issue a ruling before April 1.

But Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers noted they aren't getting paid because portions of the federal government are not funded as the Trump administration negotiates with Congress for money to pay for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. The Justice Department asked the judge to delay the case until the government is funded again. If not, they asked to extend all filing deadlines by 10 days.

"Department of Justice attorneys are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances, including 'emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,'" Justice Department lawyers wrote in their court filing.

The decision is up to U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, who agreed to extend deadlines last month in a case involving Arkansas' Medicaid rules, citing the partial government shutdown.

Cara Stewart, a lawyer for the Kentucky Equal Justice Center who filed the lawsuit, said any delay in the case could cause a ruling to be pushed back after April 1, when the new Medicaid rules are scheduled to begin going into effect in Kentucky. The court could still decide to block the rules after April 1, after thousands of people would have already been impacted by the changes.

Kentucky Health and Family Services Cabinet Secretary Adam Meier said he was not surprised by the renewed legal challenge, adding state officials will "continue to work toward implementation."

"Kentuckians, and specifically our Medicaid members, deserve a Medicaid program that will improve health outcomes and provide paths for employability, long-term stability, and future success while also ensuring the long-term sustainability of Medicaid for those who need it most," he said.