GOP must think poor haven’t suffered enough
— February 4, 2014
Wyoming lawmakers insulted everyone’s intelligence when they used the lame excuse of not trusting the federal government to explain why they threw away $50 million that would have enabled more than 17,000 low-income, childless adults to receive Medicaid.
That’s bad enough, but some proceeded to pile on the poor, insulting and belittling them because they’re supposedly not willing to work and want everything for nothing. They effectively told thousands of people not only won’t they be served any more gruel, they have to give back the spoon and bowl because they don’t deserve them.
If the Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead won’t accept the Medicaid millions, it doesn’t leave many options for people who committed the crime of not making enough money to buy health insurance. They don’t have any lobbyists in expensive suits who can treat lawmakers to free dinners and plead their case, so they’re on their own.
But if you’re stuck in a minimum-wage job – which is likely why you can’t afford health insurance – you don’t have time to spend at the Capitol. And if you did, many Republican legislators would admonish you for choosing to be poor; take some responsibility for improving your life.
The majority of GOP Wyoming lawmakers have adopted the same health care strategy their counterparts in Congress did when they debated the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Here’s the entire Republican plan, as Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., truthfully told Americans in 2009: Don’t get sick, but if you do, die quickly.
It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for what many conservatives call the “greatest health care system in the world,” even though it’s broken, and has been for decades, because as a nation we won’t recognize health care as a human right; it’s something that private insurance companies must be allowed to exploit to make a profit.
I say “we” because, as I explained in two earlier columns, the loss of my full-time journalism job last year means I now qualify for Medicaid. Like the other 17,000 people caught in the coverage gap, we can’t be included because Wyoming’s Republican leaders decided last year the feds can’t be trusted to hold up their end of the expansion deal to initially pay 100 percent of the cost, gradually reducing it to 90 percent (which is still a great deal for the state) by 2020.
Wyoming takes a lot of money from the federal government for myriad things — including such essentials as roads, schools and homeland security – and the fed never reneged on its promises. But our leaders want us to believe it will happen with Medicaid, so people who would benefit from the program can’t use it.
They can’t have Obamacare, either, because they don’t qualify for any federal subsidies or tax credits on the health insurance exchange. I’m hoping increased part-time work in addition to helping run a nonprofit news webpage will give me enough income so I can sign up for Obamacare and don’t have to rely on Medicaid that isn’t available.
There are two Medicaid alternatives the Legislature might look at during the budget session that begins February 10, but don’t hold your breath waiting for one to pass. Non-budget bills must get at least two-thirds support in both chambers to even be considered. A Democratic effort to put Medicaid expansion in the main budget bill, so it just needed a simple majority, failed.
Mead’s hatred of Obamacare is well-documented. The first thing he did in office was join other states suing the feds in a losing effort over the law’s constitutionality. Later he said Wyoming needed to develop its own health care solution, and then did everything he could to keep the state from administering its own health exchanges. He let the feds take over.
So what are the remaining options? Medicaid Fit is an honest attempt by Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) to reach a compromise enough Republicans will vote for so at least low-income childless adults will be able to receive some benefits. Throne favors passing the full federal Medicaid expansion, but understands there is no sentiment in either conservative-dominated chamber to approve it. She deserves credit for trying to work with moderate Republicans, because if some version of the expansion doesn’t pass, people caught in the Medicaid gap will stay that way for at least another year.
My problem with Medicaid Fit is that by watering down what the expansion could do for people who desperately need help, we’re allowing lawmakers to pretend it’s OK for Wyoming citizens to receive fewer benefits than people in states that did the right thing and protected their residents’ health care.
Throne explained at the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee meeting Jan. 9 in Cheyenne that Republicans want to see the poor “have some skin in the game.” Her bill uses federal expansion funds to provide a “more limited” set of services to those eligible, with the possibility of cost-sharing mechanisms built in.
But there’s no reason for Wyoming not to have full Medicaid expansion, other than to placate the GOP so it can score political points with the party’s right-wing core. Some say half a loaf is better than none at all. But what about a quarter of a loaf? Is that enough to keep the rabble happy? Maybe it’s sufficient to let them fight over crumbs the wealthy leave when they’ve had their fill of the bread.
It’s outrageous anyone thinks less fortunate Wyoming citizens deserve to be treated as second-class for any reason. They need a helping hand, not ridicule. But ridicule is what keeps being dished out to them. The second plan, known as the Arkansas Model, would allow the state to buy private coverage for poor people through the new federal insurance marketplace. As some critics have noted, Republicans think it’s OK to accept federal tax dollars as long as it goes to the private sector, and not into the public sector.
Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) favors the plan, she said, in part because it encourages uninsured, unemployed people to become “upwardly mobile” since they can take the insurance with them when they land a job. I think the poor have enough incentive to move upward just trying to feed their families and pay their bills.
The stated legislative intent of the Arkansas Model is offensive. It says the Department of Health will reform Medicaid so it is “a personally responsible and opportunity-driven program.” It’s also supposed to “promote accountability, personal responsibility and transparency [and] encourage and reward health outcomes and responsible choices.” Providing low-income people health care should be based on societal goals to keep everyone healthy. It has nothing to do with making Republicans feel good because the beneficiaries humbled themselves and showed enough “personal responsibility.”
At least Harvey was aghast at the insistence of Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) that her plan have a work requirement of at least 20 hours a week, because he thinks that’s the standard for all “welfare programs.” She imparted two hard truths Scott has not yet grasped: Many people lost jobs due to the 2008 recession and there aren’t enough good-paying jobs for everyone.
A friend of mine has a teen relative who took a part-time job that required her to stand outside in a costume and wave at potential customers. One day was all she could endure, so she told her boss she wanted to quit and go back to making sandwiches. “Good,” he replied. “There are 50 other people who want that job.”
Given the current job market in many Wyoming towns, I don’t doubt it. Most people are willing to do what they need to – including crappy, miserable jobs – to get by. They certainly don’t need any legislator telling them to suck it up, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and, damn it, get off the dole.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is editor-in-chief of the nonprofit, online community newspaper, The Casper Citizen. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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