- Associated Press - Friday, January 27, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Litigation between Republican state lawmakers, federal officials and new Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration on his effort to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents has been put on hold for a couple of months.

A federal judge delayed the proceedings Friday, as requested this week by GOP legislative leaders and federal health regulators now part of President Donald Trump’s administration. The order reduces hopes Cooper may have had for quick federal action on a formal Medicaid proposal.

Two weeks ago, state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore sued Cooper’s department that oversees Medicaid and federal regulators under President Barack Obama’s administration, saying Cooper lacked authority to seek expansion on his own.

They were worried Cooper, who announced in early January that he would seek to expand Medicaid under Obama’s signature health care law, would get approval from Obama’s leaders before Trump took office.

Cooper has said expanding Medicaid to cover more of the working poor would inject up to $4 billion into the state, create health care jobs and help rural hospitals. Republican lawmakers have been skeptical about expansion and its long-term spending commitments.

U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan agreed Jan. 14 to halt Cooper’s Department of Health and Human Services from filing a proposal and federal Medicaid regulators from acting on it.

That temporary blockage was set to expire Saturday. An extension wasn’t needed, according to a joint request filed Thursday by lawyers for Berger, Moore and the federal government, because Trump’s Medicaid regulators agreed it wouldn’t act on any proposal Cooper submitted for at least three months.

The delay in lawsuit proceedings would “allow time for incoming officials in the new administration to evaluate the issues in this case,” the lawyers wrote. Trump backs the Republican-led Congress in wanting to repeal Obama’s health care overhaul that provides the expansion offer. Repeal could make the case moot.

Flanagan’s order, which directs future filings to begin no later than March 31, marks a turnabout compared with earlier this month, when Moore and Berger were at odds with the federal government led by Obama, a Democrat.

The judge’s order doesn’t prevent Cooper from filing a Medicaid expansion proposal. Cooper’s office late Friday didn’t address a question of whether the state Department of Health and Human Services would file one.

“Expanding health care is the right thing to do for North Carolina’s economy and people and it’s unfortunate that legislative leaders are playing politics and letting tax dollars already paid by North Carolinians go to other states,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an email.

In a Facebook post, Berger, R-Rockingham, said the federal government made clear Thursday “it will reject Roy Cooper’s brazenly illegal attempt to expand Obamacare in North Carolina, and just now a federal court issued another stay blocking his reckless scheme.” Thursday’s joint filing didn’t say specifically that the federal government would reject a Cooper proposal.

Cooper administration lawyers wrote this week that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the issues belong in state court and state laws the GOP leaders cite “do not on their face even apply to the governor,” lawyer John Wester wrote Thursday.

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