Senate Democrats call for Medicaid expansion
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Feb 12, 2013 | 4378 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Democrats in the Alabama Senate say their only major goal for the Legislative session is to convince Gov. Robert Bentley to expand Medicaid.

"This is a massive economic development opportunity for us," said Minority Leader Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile.

Democrats have been needling Bentley to expand Medicaid, a joint state-federal program that provides health insurance to people in poverty, ever since the governor rejected the expansion last year.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, originally required states to expand the program to people with incomes less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The Supreme Court later ruled that states can reject the expansion.

Bentley said last year that the state can't afford to expand the program "under its current structure." Alabama's Medicaid costs have risen dramatically in recent years, due largely to the growth in the number of people below the poverty line. The Alabama Legislature is expected to consider reforms this year intended to cut the program's costs.

But Democrats say the expansion is something the state can't afford not to do, because of the health care jobs that could potentially be created by expanding the program to an estimated 300,000 new clients.

In a press conference at the Alabama State House Tuesday, nine Senate Democrats made a plea to the governor to relent on the expansion. The event was billed as the unveiling of the Democrats' Senate agenda for 2013. Figures said getting the governor to relent on Medicaid was Senate Democrats' only goal this year.

"I believe he's going to change his mind because Gov. Bentley has a good heart, and he's a good man," Figures said.

Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses, and any slate of bills introduced by Democrats would seem unlikely to pass. But the press conference gave Democrats another chance to position themselves on Medicaid for the next electoral cycle.

"Two years from now, there will be plenty of people suffering," said Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham. He said voters would remember that at the ballot box in 2014 elections, which are almost two years away.

Democrats also made allusions to racial injustice, noting that the black community is affected by lack of health care and saying the state seems to have moved backward after progress following the civil rights movement.

"The governor and all those who are opposed to the expansion are literally standing in the hospital door," said Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma.

Bentley's spokesman, Jeremy King, said Tuesday that the governor wants to reform Medicaid before taking any other action. Without reform to control costs, he said, the current Medicaid system isn't sustainable.

"The first priority is fixing the system we have, not expanding the system," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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