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Patients want a say in lawsuit challenging Arizona's Medicaid expansion plan

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PHOENIX — Newly insured patients have asked a judge to let them help defend Arizona's Medicaid expansion in a lawsuit challenging the plan.

Advocacy groups representing low-income Arizona residents say their clients should be allowed to have a say in court because Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has repeatedly said he opposes President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law, which made the expansion possible. A Ducey administration official is the named defendant in the lawsuit, and the state is represented by outside counsel.

"We just want to make sure all the arguments are properly presented to the court and make sure that somebody besides government people are arguing about this," Tim Hogan, executive director for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said.

Ducey has been coy on whether he wants the expansion to remain intact. He reiterated Wednesday that he would allow Tom Betlach, the state's Medicaid director, defend the case.

"I've said that I'm 100 percent opposed to Obamacare," Ducey said. "We're going to let the courts make the decision here."

Former Gov. Jan Brewer embraced the expansion, a major component of the federal Affordable Care Act, when she got the Legislature to approve it in 2013.

Arizona pays its share of expansion costs through a hospital fee. Republicans who control the Legislature argue that assessment is a tax that required a two-thirds vote, but it passed with only a bare majority. They sued shortly after the law was enacted.

The conservative Goldwater Institute is representing the Legislature.

Brewer fought the suit and tried to get it thrown out on grounds that the lawmakers were just angry they lost a political battle, but the Arizona Supreme Court has allowed the case to proceed.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge has set arguments for July.

Ducey was dropped as a defendant earlier this year, leaving Betlach, who heads the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment system, as the main defendant.

Both the state and Goldwater oppose allowing patients to intervene. But Hogan said his clients have a vested interest in participating in the lawsuit, noting that Brewer's lawyers asked them to file friend of the court briefs early in the litigation.

"I can't imagine this gets decided without the presence of the people who actually need health care," Hogan said. "It's a fiction to think that somehow the governor's not paying attention to this."

If the assessment is overturned, Arizona won't have the matching funds to pay its share of the expansion that has extended coverage to more than 300,000 low-income people in the past 14 months. It also would lose excess federal cash to plug holes in current and future budgets.

There is no timetable for a ruling on the patients' request, but Hogan is seeking expedited action.

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