(CN) – Governor Matt Bevin countersued a group of activists opposed to Kentucky’s requirement that people work to receive Medicaid and threatened to halt the state’s expansion of the program under Obamacare unless a court upholds the new rules.
Bevin, a Republican, sued 16 activists in Frankfort, Ky., federal court on Monday, seeking a judgment that the state’s Medicaid waiver, Kentucky HEALTH, is lawful under the Social Security Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the U.S. Constitution.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved the waiver last month, requiring non-exempt Kentucky adults between the ages of 19 and 64 to complete 80 hours per month of “community engagement” to keep their Medicaid coverage.
Those hours can include time spent working, volunteering in the community or training for a job. The state argues the Medicaid work requirement will foster health and wellbeing and that the inclusion of monthly premiums for its programs will boost the safety-net program’s financial health.
Sixteen Kentuckians sued CMS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but not state agencies, claiming the new rules violate federal law. Their complaint challenges Kentucky’s work requirements and other parts of the Medicaid waiver.
The National Health Law Program, Kentucky Equal Justice Center and Southern Poverty Law Center filed the class action on behalf of the plaintiffs in Washington, D.C., federal court.
Attorneys from the groups did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment on Bevin’s lawsuit.
Jane Perkins, legal director for the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, accused the government last month of exceeding its authority in granting the waiver.
“These waiver approvals raise a host of legal issues — not just the work requirements and premiums but eliminating health care services, such as transportation to health care facilities or providers. This amounts to a project demonstrating how to destroy a strong health care program,” Perkins said in a statement when the class action was filed. “Allowing the state to ignore fundamental Medicaid protections will result in large numbers of low-income individuals and families losing health care coverage.”
The federal government has asked a judge in Washington to transfer the class action to Kentucky because the allegations concern a state program and a Kentucky court needs to decide the case.
Now, the state’s governor has weighed in on the dispute by filing a countersuit against the 16 plaintiffs in the class action.
Bevin’s lawsuit says the Medicaid work requirements will begin in “short order.” Kentucky is ready to “withdraw entirely” from the Medicaid expansion if a court blocks the work requirements and other provisions of its waiver, according to the complaint.
Steve Pitt, general counsel for the governor, said in a statement Monday that Bevin’s administration could not “sit idly by” and watch the case play out in Washington.
“We have complete confidence that Kentucky HEALTH will be upheld and will serve as a successful national model,” he said.
Pitt did not immediately respond to a request for an interview on Tuesday.
Tens of millions of Americans benefit from the free health insurance under Medicaid.
Close to 500,000 Kentucky residents have enrolled in Medicaid since it was expanded under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. About 350,000 Kentuckians could be required to work to keep their health insurance, according to the New York Times.