By Jared Weber
In the waning days of this year’s legislative work session, advocates continued to push for Medicaid expansion Tuesday.
Members of Health Action North Carolina (HANC) — a group of social justice organizations, community health centers, health care providers, advocates, patients and others — spent the day visiting lawmakers and government officials in a quest to add hundreds of thousands more low-income North Carolinians to Medicaid, the joint state and federal program provides insurance to low-income children, some of their parents, people with disabilities and many low-income seniors.
Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham) expressed his support for Medicaid expansion during an afternoon press conference.
He also acknowledged that the time to pass any legislation in favor of Medicaid expansion during this year’s legislative work session has passed.
“The short session will be over this week. It’s not going to happen,” McKissick said. “But we will, in fact, be continuing to build the blocks to make [Medicaid expansion] happen when we return.”
Following Virginia’s lead
McKissick pointed to North Carolina’s northern neighbor Virginia, which voted to expand Medicaid to more than 400,000 low-income state residents late last month, as an example to follow.
That extension provided access to health care for folks who fell in the state’s coverage gap — a subset of people who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive subsidies created in the Affordable Care Act to pay towards their own private insurance plan.
According to a study performed in 2014 by several of the state’s large foundations, North Carolina’s coverage gap affects as many as 500,000 people.
Similar to North Carolina, Virginia has Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature and a Democratic governor. The Senate had refused to budge on Medicaid expansion for several years, before some Republican senators broke ranks during a May 30 vote.
Lee Storrow, executive director of the NC AIDS Action Network, offered some advice he’d been given last week by a colleague in Virginia.
“What I was reminded of by him was that the path [to expansion] in Virginia was that advocates didn’t let up,” Storrow said. “Advocates maintained the drum beat and continued to speak out about why this policy work was important.”
Personal experiences fuel press conference
The group’s day began at the legislative building, where they met with lawmakers to voice their concerns — many of them based in personal experiences with the coverage gap.
Then to a press conference where representatives from the coalition lined up behind McKissick, Storrow and two other speakers: Debbie Smith and Marta Concepcion, who both fall into the coverage gap.
Burlington resident Smith and her husband both suffer from multiple debilitating medical conditions. Smith, 63, has asthma and avascular necrosis, better known as “dead bone disease,” which hinders her ability to walk. She also said she needs shoulder replacement surgery, which she can’t afford.[sponsor]
Her husband, Smith said, suffers from diabetes, congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which she said he developed as a result of work he did while serving in the military.
“Every morning I wake up and, if I don’t sleep right next to him, I go from the bedroom to the living room and I have to look at him and see if he’s breathing, because I don’t know if he will be,” she said, choking up.
With Medicaid expansion, Smith said the two would be able to access several crucial medications, including her husband’s Trulicity, a weekly diabetes injection.
Concepcion said she moved to North Carolina three years ago from New York, a state that has had Medicaid expansion since 2014.
She has bipolar depression and sleep apnea, among other problems.
“I’m on nitroglycerin because of my heart condition, and it’s stopping me from doing a lot,” Concepcion said. “When I walk for an hour, my chest is killing me and pain is running down my arms, but I can’t ever go check it because I can’t afford it.”
Finally, the advocates braved the rain to walk to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office with a thank you card.
Cooper, who supports Medicaid expansion, has pushed the legislature since the beginning of his tenure in office to pass the measure. Earlier this year, he suggested that he’d agree to work requirements for the program if the state legislature agreed to expand.