FILE - Sen. Mike Woodard North Carolina

North Carolina state Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham

(The Center Square) — Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly have proposed legislation to expand Medicaid coverage in the state.

Senate Democrats have filed Senate Bill 402, which they said would insure 600,000 North Carolinians and bring billions of dollars of federal aid and economic benefits to the state. Lawmakers plan to file a similar bill in the House.

Democrats have rallied for raising the eligibility threshold since states were given the ability to do so under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Republicans have been resistant to the full expansion. A group of Democrats said Tuesday, however, it believes it may be able to secure bipartisan support for the legislative change.

"North Carolina's failure to expand Medicaid means that we have just been treading water, but we've seen in recent years that we are, in fact, losing ground," Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said Tuesday during a news conference. "As one of only 12 states left that have not expanded Medicaid, we have now seen almost 1.2 million North Carolinians without health insurance, as we stand here today."

Only pregnant women, children, disabled adults and their caretakers are eligible for Medicaid under North Carolina law. Eligible adults must have an income of about 42% of the federal poverty level to qualify for the government-supported program. SB 402 expands the program to allow nondisabled adults between 19 and 64 years old to be eligible for the program if their income does not surpass 133% of the federal poverty level.

States that expand Medicaid now can earn an additional incentive under the American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March. The federal measure increases the federal government's financial share of the program to 95%. The federal government currently covers around 60% to 69% of North Carolina's Medicaid costs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Once the American Rescue Plan's incentive period ends, hospitals would support the supplemental share under SB 402. Before the American Rescue Plan Act, a full expansion required the federal government to cover 90% of the cost.

Democrats also said their proposal would decrease North Carolina's high infant mortality rate, curtail health care disparities among communities of color and create jobs and other economic opportunities for residents.

Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Hoke, said the economic benefits from expanding Medicaid could be a great advantage for his district and other rural communities in North Carolina.

According to a Cone Health Foundation and Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust report, expanding Medicaid would create more than 37,000 new jobs and increase the state's business activity by nearly $12 billion in three years.

Republicans in the General Assembly have argued expanding Medicaid could create more problems for the state, including budget deficits. Both sides have shown interest in closing the state's health care coverage gap.

About 11% of North Carolina's population was uninsured in 2019, U.S. Census Bureau of Statistics data showed. Lawmakers believe job loss from the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the health coverage gap.

"There have been productive conversations about ways to improve access to affordable health care in North Carolina, and we expect those conversations to continue," said Lauren Horsch, a spokesperson for Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. "It seems that all sides share the goal of making health care more affordable and accessible to more people, though opinions differ on the best way to achieve that goal."

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.