A Republican state senator wants to impose stricter work requirements for Medicaid recipients than those the state currently has proposed, arguing that people are leaving the workforce for the tax-funded health benefits.

Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said, "There were folks who were working, and they had health insurance at work but when the government said we'll provide health insurance for you, they left work, and of course those are able-bodied folks who were working."

Huffman, testifying Tuesday before a Senate committee considering his proposal, said that in his northwest Ohio district he's heard of "many" employees of nursing homes who left their jobs "because they were working just for the health insurance."

"There is a real disincentive for people to work if you are at a certain income category and you qualify (for Medicaid). The government is in effect competing with employers for these workers by providing these benefits," he said.

The joint federal and state Medicaid program provides health insurance for nearly 3 million poor and disabled Ohioans.

Huffman's proposal, Senate Bill 25, would require Medicaid recipients aged 18 to 65 to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for benefits. There would be exemptions for those: attending college or in a job training program; in an alcohol or drug addiction treatment program; deemed by a doctor to be physically or mentally unfit for employment; or caring for a child under age 1 or a child with a medical condition or disability.

If passed, the bill would require state officials to amend a more limited proposal submitted to federal regulators at lawmakers' request last April and awaiting approval. That plan would impose work requirements on able-bodied adults up to age 50 who became eligible for Medicaid under the 2014 program expansion. State officials projected 36,000 Ohioans could lose coverage for failing to meet the mandate.

Huffman noted that federal regulators have approved requests from other states to require work up to age 65, including Kentucky and New Hampshire, although neither has implemented a plan.

According to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Ohio is one of 15 states to submit requests for Medicaid work requirements. Seven have been approved, and of them, two, Arkansas and Indiana, have been implemented.

Five requests require those up to age 50 to work and the others apply to those at ages up to 60 to 65. Most seek a minimum of 20 hours of work a week.

If federal bureaucrats approve his plan, "there will be a lot of people who will go back to work," Huffman said, adding that the requirement will help employers who can't find workers.

Some on the Senate panel questioned Huffman's plan.

Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said unemployment is low right now with plenty of jobs available but that won't always be the case.

"Why should the government be competing for these workers with the private sector?" Huffman asked in response.

Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, pointed to a recent Medicaid survey that showed half of the Medicaid expansion population was already working, and 60 percent of unemployed beneficiaries said having health care made it easier to look for a job. Of those leaving the rolls, 71 percent said it was because they found a job or their income increased.

"Aren't we already seeing the success that we hoped for? (Do) we need those work requirements when folks are telling us just having health care helped them seek and find work?" Antonio asked.

Huffman said there are "hundreds of thousands" who are not working or looking for a job.

He also noted that in other states that have imposed work requirements, Medicaid rolls dropped "dramatically."

That's a trend critics of work requirements say is concerning. In Arkansas, 18,000 lost Medicaid coverage for failing to meet work requirements imposed last year for recipients ages 18 to 50.

Ohio Medicaid spokesman Tom Betti said, “We are currently reviewing the bill and will be available to our partners in the legislature for discussion and technical assistance throughout the process.”

ccandisky@dispatch.com

@ccandisky