It’s not good to gloat over any political victory. It’s considered poor sportsmanship and can result in bad karma.
But today, I can’t help it. Wins in the U.S. Supreme Court on two vital issues last week made it very satisfying to be a progressive, and that’s so rare in Wyoming it’s a cause for celebration.
Conservative state lawmakers expected the high court would buy an incredibly weak argument that some conflicting language in what they derisively call “Obamacare” would be its death knell. Likewise, they figured right-wing justices would successfully rule against marriage equality and allow states to ban same-sex marriage.
Both are landmark cases. Legalizing gay marriage in the U.S. is the result of an unexpected, dramatic shift in public opinion that had previously allowed many Republicans to use it as a social wedge issue. But no more. The Supreme Court’s earlier rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act’s protection of “traditional” unions and sweeping lower court rulings throwing out state bans should have been a clue to conservatives their ability to scare voters that same-sex marriage would come to an inevitable end.
A majority of Americans who love gay family members and care for friends who have come out of the closet turned the tide. Once enough people realized we have victimized an entire group solely because of sexual orientation — which holds absolutely no threat to any heterosexual marriage — the only thing conservatives had to rally the troops was religious intolerance.
In the House last March, the most extreme members made the shameful argument that people’s religious beliefs trump the ability of the LGBT community to be protected from work discrimination. They won that argument, but both Republicans and Democrats were appalled that a majority in the House supported the notion people have an inherent right to discriminate against anyone they want to because they live by a different religious doctrine.
With the Supreme Court’s second ruling preserving the ACA, the reasons conservatives have repeatedly fought the law crumble. Whether that results in the much-needed expansion of Medicaid remains to be seen, but I am suddenly optimistic about its chances in the wake of so much judicial common sense.
Since the ACA passed five years ago, opponents have hid behind crackpot arguments that the reformed system would wreak havoc on Americans’ ability to make their own health care decisions without massive government interference. When many in Wyoming and other red states saw Obamacare help millions obtain health insurance and any negative aspects had been grossly exaggerated, support began to increase.
People also realized the governors and lawmakers in Republican-run states had put them at a great disadvantage in obtaining health insurance. Democratic states that readily accepted most elements of the ACA — including Medicaid expansion to add millions of the working poor to the ranks of the insured — are far ahead of states that fought the system tooth-and-nail from the beginning.
In Wyoming, the first action taken by new-Gov. Matt Mead in 2011 was to join nearly two dozen other states in the initial Supreme Court challenge to the ACA. Initially, Gov. Mead and leaders in the Wyoming Legislature thought it preferable to set up a state exchange, underscoring their distaste for federal involvement. But a state exchange never came to fruition, which was of no consequence to Wyoming’s wrongly-positioned political stance — that litigation against the ACA would eventually render the law unconstitutional.
Wyoming had only two companies offer to insure people under the program, and that lack of competition resulted in our state having the highest insurance premiums in the nation under the act.
Meanwhile, Mead opposed Medicaid expansion, even though it would allow an estimated 17,500 of Wyoming’s poorest residents to sign up for subsidized health care. This population fell through the system’s “Medicaid gap” — they made too little money to qualify for the traditional program, but were also ineligible to get the ACA insurance subsidies and tax credits available to others.
In what has to rank as one of the stupidest decisions the Wyoming Legislature has ever made, lawmakers turned down the chance to have the federal government pay the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years. The feds agreed to subsequently pay no less than 90 percent, and if they didn’t, the state could immediately opt out of the program.
The governor and others maintained the state cannot trust the federal government to keep its word, despite the fact the state has never let that possibility keep it from using federal funds for a host of expenses, from building highways to public education.
A state Department of Health (DOH) report should have clinched passage of expansion by virtue of the projection Wyoming would lose up to $120 million a year in federal funds by not signing up. Meanwhile, the state would have to spend more than $47 million of its own funds if it turned down expansion.
The loss of about $200 million in uncompensated care for Wyoming hospitals did nothing to change opponents’ minds. Lawmakers decided to spend millions more, not receive hundreds of millions in federal funds, and put some hospitals at risk of closing their doors, all while doing zip to help the state’s poorest of the poor receive health care.
Throwing a bone to supporters, Mead and the Legislature allowed DOH to negotiate with the federal Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services for an expansion tailored to Wyoming’s needs. The department came back with exactly what the Legislature requested.
By this time Mead had changed his mind and told legislators they must pass Medicaid expansion, but they blew off his urgent plea. They killed the DOH plan, plus a red herring offered by the chief expansion opponent, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper). A last-ditch compromise was snuffed out when the House decided it would never get through the Senate.
Among the arguments in the upper chamber was that the Supreme Court would undoubtedly kill Obamacare the second time around, and the Medicaid effort would be for naught. It’s far better to reject expansion, they said, rather than waste time and money putting more people on Medicaid and having to remove them.
When the Supreme Court upheld the ACA subsidies last Thursday, it removed the phony justification legislators used to fight Medicaid expansion. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) quickly proclaimed the Obamacare battle isn’t over and more legal challenges will be filed, but he knows the program is here to stay. A hundred more House votes to repeal it won’t accomplish a thing except make Boehner continue to look ineffective. He’s used to that, so the speaker may well stay his course.
Meanwhile, Wyoming Republicans don’t have any credible arguments against Medicaid expansion, and Mead’s flip-flop cost them any political cover he could have provided.
Any Legislature that gleefully rejects helping the poverty-stricken sick see a doctor and ensures their early death, then votes to continue allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation, doesn’t care a whit about what the public, the federal government or the Supreme Court thinks.
Judgment day is coming in the form of the 2016 elections, and the knowledge that enough conservative justices joined their liberal colleagues in two remarkable, nation-changing decisions should finally scare conservatives holding elective seats in Wyoming.
Conservatives have immensely enjoyed winning in Wyoming, but they’ve come to take it for granted. Times really are changing, and the smiles worn by progressives today may last longer than anyone thinks.
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