Commentary: Medicaid expansion makes sense, morally right

Healing the poor: What would Jesus do? Few people would have any difficulty responding to this question. Jesus’s commitment to healing the sick, without discrimination, and caring for the poor fills the biblical narrative about his life and teachings. How does it happen that the good people of Virginia, and/or our elected representatives, have gotten it so wrong?

Medicaid is the health care program designed to help poor people have access to quality medical services. Virginia’s current Medicaid eligibility is one of the worst in the country. A family of four can only qualify if its annual income does not exceed $10,000. Who among the readers could pay rent and buy food for four with less than $900 a month — never mind a phone, transportation, electricity?

Medicaid expansion, part of the Affordable Health Care Act, provides 100 percent of the funding for Medicaid expansion to states for the first three years and then no less than 90 percent funding thereafter. These funds would raise eligibility to $31,000 for a family of four and expand health care coverage to an estimated 195,000 additional uninsured members of the working poor in Virginia.

The Virginia legislature has refused to accept these funds and the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that that decision has cost Virginia $9-11 billion in federal funds since 2010. Why has it cost us so much money? In working with the Obama administration, hospitals agreed to forgo current Medicaid funding in exchange for the expanded funding that would come when their legislatures agreed to receive this money.  So, not only are an estimated 425,000 poor people in Virginia suffering from limited or no access to health care, our hospitals are feeling the brunt of the failure of the state legislature to expand Medicaid.

In a PBS News Hour interview on Dec. 26, 2014, the success of health care in Seattle, Washington, which expanded Medicaid, was contrasted with Winchster, Virginia, where the legislature has not. Mark Merrill, CEO of Valley Health in Winchester, talked about reducing staff — 28 were laid off — and curtailing needed services such as trauma care because of lack of access to federal funds.

By contrast, a hospital administrator in Seattle, Washington, where Medicaid expansion had been approved, reported receiving $20-30 million annually to cover the cost of health care for the poor.

Rural hospitals in the states that have refused these federal funds are closing in large numbers. Those in the Shenandoah Valley are reducing services, firing employees and struggling financially.

Thanks to our legislature, we have now penalized both the poor and the health care providers who serve all of us. Is this who we are?  Is this the message of Jesus? Where is the compassion that should guide our decisions about our treatment of the poor?

Sadly, our current state senator, Mark Obenshain, has failed to tap into it.  He has joined the majority of his Republican colleagues in not only refusing to accept expanded Medicaid funding but he has also supported the Republican legislative leadership in fighting any effort Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made to creatively meet the funding needs required to cover health care for the poor. Ironically, Obenshain does this knowing that federal taxes paid by the people of Virginia help cover the cost of expanded Medicaid in other states and knowing that it would cover 10,500 people not now covered in his district as well as send millions of dollars to valley hospitals.

Expanding Medicaid funding not only makes economic sense, it is the moral and compassionate thing to do. It is time for the people of Virginia, and of District 26, to elect a candidate who combines common sense with compassion.   April Moore, who is running against Obenshain for the state Senate, offers an alternative that surely reflects the values and good will of the people of this district.

Laura Crites and Tim Keck are residents of Basye.

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