PHOENIX - Saying it won't second-guess lawmakers, the state Court of Appeals upheld their decision to deny taxpayer-funded health care to 135,000 otherwise eligible, low-income Arizonans.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the judges acknowledged that their ruling contradicts what voters approved in 2000.
The judges agreed that in approving a ballot measure that year, voters intended that the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System provide medical care for anyone below the federal poverty level. That figure, adjusted annually, currently is about $18,500 a year for a family of three.
AHCCCS, as Arizona's version of Medicaid, gets about two-thirds of its funds from the U.S. government. In expanding the program in 2000, voter-approved Proposition 204 said the state's share of the extra costs would come from tobacco taxes and a lawsuit settlement with cigarette companies, and it directed the Legislature to supplement that funding as necessary from other "available sources."
But Judge Patricia Norris, writing for the court, said when lawmakers made cuts in funding earlier this year, they concluded they had used all available sources to fund AHCCCS. She said it is legally irrelevant that lawmakers had money to pay for other non-mandatory programs.
"Under our system of governance, and in these circumstances, resolution of this issue is entrusted to the Legislature's judgment," Norris wrote. "In these circumstances, we are ill-equipped to inquire into and second-guess the complexities of decision-making and priority-setting that go into managing the state's budget."
Norris stressed that Tuesday's ruling does not mean the court believes the decision to cut funding complies with what voters directed in approving the ballot measure. She said it simply means that the question, being political, is beyond the court's powers to review.
Attorney Tim Hogan, who represented the challengers, vowed an appeal.
He said that voters, in approving Proposition 204 in 2000, also specifically barred lawmakers from putting any limit on the number of people enrolled.
Hogan said it is the job of judges to ensure that laws, even those approved by voters, are obeyed.
But Gov. Jan Brewer, in a prepared statement, said the appellate court recognized that lawmakers are entitled to some discretion in how to divide up scarce resources.
In adopting a budget for the current year, lawmakers directed Brewer to scale back AHCCCS. She responded with a plan to exclude childless adults and some parents from the program, people who Medicaid does not require states to cover.
About 230,000 in this category who were already enrolled on July 8, when the change took effect, were allowed to remain in the program as long as they remained eligible. But beginning that day, everyone else in this category was turned away, and those who lost eligibility could not re-enroll.
Monica Coury, a deputy director of AHCCCS, said her agency does not track how many were denied coverage. But the agency said earlier this year that the change would affect about 135,000 over the course of a year.