Coalition of churches comes to Capitol to fight for Medicaid
They came to the Capitol on blind faith they could change the Medicaid expansion debate.
Faith is something this group knows something about.
The Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together, or AFACT, represents about 15 congregations and counts about 10,000 churchgoers as members.
A delegation of 14 people came to the Capitol this week in hopes of meeting with each and every lawmaker.
Their message: Lawmakers have a moral imperative to help those who can’t help themselves.
“We are our brother’s keeper,” said Sister Mary Peter Diaz, a member of the Daughters of Charity order.
AFACT says it has congregation members whose lives would be greatly improved if they had access to health care.
“Like the good Samaritan, we have to go and help them. We can’t be the ones that walk on the other side of the street,” said the nun.
Pastor Max Lopez-Cepero, from the First Evangelical Covenant Church in Downtown Anchorage, says AFACT hopes to change hearts and minds at the Capitol.
“When you only look at budgets and dollars, what you’re really saying is, ‘This is my morality,’” Lopez-Cepero said.
Sen. Pete Kelly, who is working on a Medicaid reform bill, disagrees.
“When I think of moral imperative, I think of making a sacrifice for someone else,” Kelly said. “What we’re talking about isn’t about me making a sacrifice. It’s everybody else making a sacrifice.”
Kelly says lawmakers have an obligation to spend state money wisely and fairly, something that’s not happening with the current Medicaid program.
“I think everyone agrees Medicaid is broken. I think it’s been broken for 30 years,” Kelly said. “Now to expand it, to put more money to, more people into it, that’s certainly not going to help its brokenness.”
Kelly says his constituents in Fairbanks are opposed to Medicaid expansion because they feel the state is spending too much money on Medicaid as it is.
Gov. Bill Walker has championed Medicaid expansion, before and since taking office, but his attempt to put a provision in the budget — to tap federal Medicaid dollars — was scrapped by a House finance subcommittee.
It would have allowed the state to accept $145 million in federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage. About 42,000 uninsured Alaskans would have been eligible.
Republican Majority leaders want the governor to submit a bill to ensure any plan to expand the Medicaid program is adequately vetted through the legislative committee process. They worry the federal government will eventually pull funding for the program, leaving the state to cover all the costs.
AFACT leaders question whether the Legislature is too focused on the mechanics of Medicaid expansion, rather than on the people who would benefit.
Louise Dekreon-Watsjold, who represents St. Anthony Catholic Church in East Anchorage, said the lack of access to health care and its impacts is not well understood.
She relayed the story of an elderly parishioner, who has a son struggling with chronic mental illness.
“He has no health insurance. He falls into the gap. He’s single. He’s childless,” said Dekreon-Watsjold. “He’s not physically disabled.”
Dekreon-Watsjold said she learned the woman’s son lives in her basement because he’s unemployable and can’t afford treatment for his mental illness.
“She pays for it out of pocket, out of what small savings she has,” said Dekreon-Watsjold. “Tremendous hardship on her.”
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican, worries that a Medicaid expansion focus will eliminate the possibility of reform.
Dunleavy recently co-sponsored a luncheon presentation from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a national conservative group campaigning against Medicaid Expansion.
Dunleavy says it’s important the state finds out about some of the potential pitfalls of expansion, and he’ll be checking with other states to understand what they experienced.
Dunleavy also questions how much support there is for Medicaid expansion.
“I’ve not had one individual not associated with an organization that would benefit from expansion,” Dunleavy said. “But just in everyday Alaskans, I have not had one come to me and say, ‘Please expand Medicaid.”
Patrina Davis, a member of the Bethel Chapel in Mountain View, says there’s a reason why.
AFACT has given a lot of grassroots presentations on Medicaid and discovered that most of those, who might become eligible for health care under Medicaid expansion, had no idea they might actually benefit.
“A lot of them were not informed and were not educated enough,” Davis said. Many, she said, were just too busy juggling several jobs to have time to even investigate their options.
AFACT eventually put together a guide for its congregations to help those in need and to help others understand the spiritual aspect of providing health care to the needy.
Sen. Lesil McGuire, a Republican who represents South Anchorage, said she’s glad AFACT has brought its campaign to the Capitol.
“The faith-based community tends to be a uniter,” McGuire said. “The fact that they’re supporting the expansion of Medicaid for humanitarian and economic reasons may move some members who historically have sided against Medicaid expansion, to the yes side.”
“I think it could be a game-changer,” McGuire said.
She said conservative business groups like the State Chamber of Commerce have already come out in support of expansion because they recognize the public will wind up paying for health care anyway.
“That person will show up at the ER,” McGuire said. “That person will show up in a crisis, as opposed to having the preventive care that allows for cost containment.”
McGuire says there are moderate Republicans, like her, who are willing to consider Medicaid expansion.
“It’s a big issue, probably one of the biggest we’re facing here in the building – because it would affect the health quality of 40,000 Alaskan lives,” McGuire said.
With a $3.5 billion dollar budget gap, Sen. Kelly says the state needs to come to grips with Medicaid reform first.
Kelly’s bill, which will come out later this week, will look at ways of increasing the use of health savings accounts, generic drugs and even asking Medicaid recipients to contribute some money from their Permanent Fund Dividend.
In the backdrop of all of this, AFACT continues to knock on doors, sometimes sitting down with lawmakers, sometimes only getting to meet with legislative staffers.
AFACT has a meeting with the governor scheduled on Tuesday afternoon. The meeting is timely. The governor is planning to hold a series of educational town hall meetings on Medicaid expansion.
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