BOISE — More than 300 people rallied on the state Capitol steps on Monday to call for lawmakers to implement the voter-passed Medicaid expansion initiative, without adding any changes or restrictions.
Holding signs with slogans including, “No red tape!” “We said yes!” and “Respect citizen lawmakers,” the crowd chanted loudly, “Funding, yes. Restrictions, No!”
Emily Strizich, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, which spearheaded the statewide drive for the voter initiative, held her infant daughter as she addressed the crowd. “We didn’t elect our legislators to play games with people’s health care,” she said to cheers. “We elected them to represent us.”
Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, who campaigned on Medicaid expansion and defeated a GOP incumbent in November, said, “We are here today to support, to speak out for the thousands of Idahoans living in the health care coverage gap. We are here for our friends, our neighbors, our families who are living with this daily fear,” that they’re just one illness away from financial ruin.
“We call ourselves a civilized society, and yet thousands of our friends and family members live each day with this same fear,” Davis said. “It is not right, and Idahoans have spoken loud and clear.”
Among those attending the rally was John Leigh of Boise, a 66-year-old maintenance technician who rides a motorized scooter. “I have at least two dead friends who wouldn’t be dead if they had some kind of insurance, and the concept of 62,000 people in my state being in that condition offends me,” Leigh said. He added that he has company coverage himself.
The state Department of Health & Welfare now estimates that about 60,000 Idahoans fall into the state’s coverage gap, because they make too much to qualify for Idaho’s limited Medicaid program, but not enough to qualify for subsidized health insurance through the state insurance exchange.
Medicaid expansion was part of the Affordable Care Act that Congress passed, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision made that piece optional for states. Idaho was one of three states whose voters opted to expand Medicaid in November; 33 states had previously taken that step.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation has filed a lawsuit challenging the initiative as unconstitutional; a decision is pending from the Idaho Supreme Court.
In addition to Monday’s rally, volunteers with Reclaim Idaho traveled from throughout the state to the Capitol to talk to lawmakers on Monday and held more than 40 meetings with individual lawmakers to urge them to fund Medicaid expansion without restrictions.
Just hours before the rally, the Legislature’s joint budget committee held hearings on several divisions of the state Health & Welfare budget and saw that Gov. Brad Little’s proposed budget reflects $6.4 million in permanent savings to the state general fund next year because of Medicaid expansion just in those divisions, mental health services, psychiatric hospitalization and substance abuse treatment and prevention. That comes because people now receiving services entirely funded by the state would become eligible for Medicaid expansion, and the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the cost for those services.
More savings will be reflected in subsequent state agency budgets that lawmakers haven’t yet examined. Little’s budget calls for funding Medicaid expansion next year by tapping the state’s tobacco settlement fund and through offsets for savings in various divisions of the Health & Welfare and Corrections budgets; that means it wouldn’t cost the state general fund anything next year.
Among the speakers at the rally Monday was Dr. Kenneth Krell of Idaho Falls, who noted that it was nearly three years to the day since he first testified to the Senate Health & Welfare Committee in favor of Medicaid expansion, and estimated that in the three years lawmakers hadn’t taken action, 1,000 Idahoans had died unnecessarily for lack of health coverage. “It’s been three more years. That means another 1,000 Idahoans have died,” Krell told the crowd. “But we’re about to put an end to that.”
Krell said adding work requirements to Medicaid, as some Republican lawmakers have advocated, would be costly, ineffective and inhumane. “Sick people don’t work,” he said.
Teton County Commissioner Cindy Riegel told the crowd that county commissioners “from all parts of the state and all political persuasions” have been pushing state lawmakers to expand Medicaid for the four years that she’s served as a commissioner.
Riegel told the story of her son’s preschool teacher, who began suffering debilitating headaches and became so sick she could no longer work. She lost her health insurance when she quit her job. “In order to get better, she had to take her van to Montana and live in a Walmart parking lot for months so she could get on Medicaid and get treated in Montana,” Riegel said.
“The people of Idaho have cast their votes and made a law,” she said. “Now we need to make sure that our elected officials in Boise implement our law … with no restrictions.”