A Maricopa County judge will hear a bid to block changes to the state's health care program just hours before they are set to take effect.
Judge Mark Brain will consider the argument by various public interest law firms that letting the state alter rules would cause "irreparable injury'' for more than 150,000 people now eligible for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System who will not get care they need in the next year. They said 17,000 people would be affected in July alone.
"If persons eligible for AHCCCS health coverage are denied their benefits or are not allowed to apply for coverage, their lives will be forever altered,'' wrote attorney Tim Hogan for the Center for Law in the Public Interest.
Hogan contends the change in eligibility is illegal, violating the provisions of a 2000 voter-approved initiative guaranteeing free care for anyone below the federal poverty level. He wants Brain to keep the current program in place while tat contention is litigated.
The plea will get a fight from various state officials. In fact, when Hogan first took his request directly to the Arizona Supreme Court, legal briefs opposing any injunction were filed by the governor, the attorney general and Republican legislative leaders.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who ordered AHCCCS to make the change to save money, has argued that any delay in implementing the new eligibility standards will undermine the state's balanced budget. That, in turn, she said, will force lawmakers to cut other vital state services.
The legal fight centers over exactly what voters approved.
As approved, the ballot measure says anyone below the federal poverty level is eligible for coverage under AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid program. That figure now is about $18,500 a year for a family of three.
It also says the broader coverage would be paid for by tobacco taxes, the state's share of a nationwide settlement with cigarette manufacturers, "supplemented as necessary by any other available sources, including legislative appropriations and federal monies.''
Brewer says the state's budget condition leaves no other "available sources.'' So, at the direction of the Legislature to save money, she said childless adults would no longer get coverage. Also gone would be health care for other adults making at least 75 percent of the poverty level, though coverage would continue for their children.
Hogan disagrees with Brewer's reading of the law, saying the initiative -- which constitutionally cannot be repealed except by voters -- gives the poor first claim on state dollars. He also said the evidence shows there are other available funds.
If Brain agrees with Hogan and issues an injunction, attorneys for the state are likely to seek immediate emergency relief from an appellate court.
Hogan's options may be more limited, as the Arizona Supreme Court already has refused his initial request that it block the changes.