In Alabama, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who fall into a huge health care gap. They’re working, struggling and poor, but they make just a little too much to qualify for Medicaid, yet they can’t afford any other type of health insurance. Their primary care provider is usually a highly expensive emergency room and they can’t even begin to pay for the exorbitant bill that inevitably follows.
Well, that is if their local hospital hasn’t shut down due to treating a growing number of people who have little or no ability to pay for their emergency care. This is especially true in rural Alabama. Of course, having no health insurance also means having no access to any type of preventative care, which would have averted an emergency room visit in the first place.
The obvious answer is to expand Medicaid coverage.
Unfortunately, this solution has become highly politicized by conservatives who think access to affordable healthcare is an earned privilege, rather than a basic human right. Conservatives have also staked their political fortunes on vilifying anything associated with Obamacare regardless of its effectiveness or net positive financial impact. In fact, they’d rather see rural hospitals close and people go without healthcare than vote for anything to help the working poor in their districts.
Republicans have ignored urgent pleas from the Alabama Hospital Association. The association has advocated for Medicaid expansion because it would add 3 billion in economic benefits to the state and create tens of thousands of jobs. Republicans have also failed to acknowledge the positive impact of Medicaid expansion in other deep red states, like Mississippi and Georgia. Instead of looking at the evidence and the positive cost/ benefit analysis, Alabama Republicans keep doubling down on partisan rhetoric at the expense of their constituents.
Medicaid expansion shouldn’t be a politically polarizing issue when it’s clear that our current path is unsustainable as more Alabamians find themselves without insurance and more hospitals struggle to keep their doors open. We’re leaving money and jobs on the table. More importantly, people are sick or dying because they are not getting the care they desperately need. The frustrating part is that Republicans have voiced their strong opposition to expansion, but they have offered no viable alternative to solve the problem. So, maybe it’s time to shelve the partisanship and make the healthcare of Alabamians a top priority. People shouldn’t have to choose between putting groceries in the pantry or going to the doctor.
Expanding Medicaid would also help Alabama as it deals with the devastating impact of the opioid crisis. There would be more funding for substance abuse treatment and mental healthcare. It would allow for earlier intervention and save lives.
It’s mind-boggling that conservative politicians ignored the recommendation of a Republican governor’s task force to expand Medicaid in 2015. Trust me, the task force wasn’t made up of crazed liberals seeking to give out free health care. Yet, this Republican oppositional defiance is why 13 hospitals have closed in the last eight years. It’s why Alabama still has an unacceptable infant mortality rate and lags behind other states in pre-natal care.
Look, there are a million issues that are worthy of partisan bickering, but access to affordable health care shouldn’t be one of them. There’s no good reason to not expand Medicaid. It’s made a significant and positive difference in the lives of people all across the country. The benefits are palpable and obvious.
It’s time to let your legislators know that Alabama can’t afford any longer to take a pass on Medicaid expansion. How many hospitals need to close and how many Alabamians need to die before they finally get the message?
Clete Wetli is former Chair of the Madison County Democrats and a liberal political activist.