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If things were already a little tense between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders, a continued dustup over an entitlement program will likely deepen their divide.

Whitmer this week called on the Legislature to halt its 2018 law establishing work and education requirements for the state’s Healthy Michigan recipients while a legal challenge plays out. The Medicaid expansion program has grown swiftly, now serving more than 650,000 individuals, roughly 200,000 of whom are “able-bodied.”

Republicans believe it’s a fair trade-off for those receiving taxpayer-subsidized health benefits to make an effort to find a job, volunteer or continue their schooling. The law built in plenty of caveats to account for pregnant women, parents of young children and the disabled, among others. 

Yet Whitmer’s administration has fought the requirements and has sought to delay and work around the law. Now, the governor has filed a motion for partial summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Four Michigan residents filed a lawsuit in the court last November against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, since the department approved Michigan’s work mandate. 

More: Whitmer wants 'expedited decision' on Michigan's Medicaid work requirements

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“I think the governor’s plan to circumvent the law is wrong for families and taxpayers,” says House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. 

Whitmer says that if the work rule isn’t suspended and if the law is ultimately overturned, the state will have wasted millions of dollars in alerting residents about the requirements and the consequences if they don’t comply. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services next month is set to start sending letters to about 80,000 Medicaid recipients alerting them they are at risk of losing coverage if they don’t meet the law’s demands.

GOP leaders aren’t impressed with that argument, and they see Whitmer’s actions as another example of how she’s trying to ignore laws she doesn’t like. Attorney General Dana Nessel, not surprisingly, has also thrown her support behind challenging Michigan’s law. 

More: Editorial: Nessel oversteps authority in axing laws

For Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, this cavalier attitude from the governor and her administration is nothing new. He points to the Line 5 pipeline and the third-grade reading law as other areas where Whitmer has avoided and fought existing mandates. 

“It doesn’t take a scientist to see a pattern here,” Shirkey says. 

He argues the state should have a chance to defend its law, which was designed to encourage Medicaid recipients to ultimately find work and become self-sufficient. And it’s worth remembering the 2013 law built in a “trigger” that would allow the state to move on from the Medicaid expansion altogether — without legislative action — if the expected program savings don’t equal or exceed its costs. As the state takes on more of the burden of cost-sharing with the federal government, that’s a real concern. 

So encouraging individuals who are capable of working to find a job is a good way to keep the program afloat for those who truly need the help. There are plenty of low-skilled jobs available now in Detroit and other cities around the state, Shirkey says. 

It’s true that several of the 20 states that have added work and other community engagement requirements to their Medicaid expansions are facing legal challenges and setbacks. Yet Lindsay Killen, vice president of strategic outreach and communications at the Mackinac Center, has noted that courts have not yet found these stipulations to be “inherently unconstitutional.”

“In keeping with these facts, we believe strongly that Michigan must continue to honor the rule of law and move forward with the requirements,” she wrote recently.

Lawmakers agree, and they are disappointed with Whitmer’s disdain for duly passed laws. 

“This is another perfect example of this administration picking and choosing what laws to follow,” Chatfield says. 

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques 

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