By Taylor Knopf
“Medicaid expansion” has become a politically charged term in Raleigh over the past six years. But to the hundreds of advocates who descended on the capital Wednesday, Medicaid expansion is personal.
After a morning of listening to speakers at the history museum across Jones Street from the legislative building, and then fanning out to talk to lawmakers at the General Assembly, the advocates gathered in the legislative press room to share their stories. Tears were shed as the group quickly became emotional.
Carrie McBane, a restaurant worker from Jackson County, told her story of unexplained ailments that led her to specialists she couldn’t afford. She had to decide between paying her electric bill or seeing a doctor.
“I’m a hard-working woman,” she said. “I don’t qualify for Medicaid because I’m always making $80 too much.”
If North Carolina had expanded Medicaid, McBane said she could have had health insurance for the last six years.
McBane said she paid dearly out of pocket to see three specialists who each gave her another referral. Finally, she got into a local community health clinic, where she said the medical staff took the time to ask her questions and got to the bottom of her symptoms: She has type 2 diabetes.
“Not being able to afford health care insurance has impacted every aspect of my life. In my worst, most trying moments, it made me feel that the state I live in doesn’t have my best interest at heart,” she said.
“Especially when it felt like my life was on the line and it really was. It’s demeaning, and it puts a price tag on my life when there shouldn’t be a price on a human life.”
Number one priority
Prominent North Carolina Democrats, such as Gov. Roy Cooper and Health and Human Services Sec. Mandy Cohen, have thrown their weight behind Medicaid expansion this year. Democratic lawmakers say it’s their number one priority.
N.C. Democrats have been calling for Medicaid expansion since 2013. So what’s different about this year?
Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Hillsborough) said it’s because more and more Americans believe that government has a role in helping people have affordable health care.
The idea behind Medicaid expansion is to offer health insurance to the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but don’t earn enough to qualify for subsidies to buy an insurance plan on the Affordable Care Act marketplace. People who qualify for Medicaid include low-income children, some of their parents, low-income pregnant women, poor elderly and people with disabilities.
North Carolina is one of only 14 states that have not taken up the federal offer of more robust reimbursement for enrollees who would be added under the measure.
Meyer said that health care affordability was the number one issue for voters in the 2018 election and polling data before and after last November’s election bolstered Meyer’s argument.
Democrats broke the Republican supermajority at the state legislature, and Meyer credits a large part of that to Democrats running on Medicaid expansion.
And Meyer said that this year, expansion could be a bargaining chip for other policy issues as the legislative session progresses.
“I think that expanding Medicaid would allow us to stabilize the health care market,” he said. “Stabilizing the market would allow us to take on a number of other policy issues that we’ve been avoiding. If taking on some of those other issues allows us to expand Medicaid, I’m willing to have those conversations.”
Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford), a co-sponsor the Senate version of the bill to expand Medicaid, said that all North Carolinians should have access to the same quality of health care that state lawmakers have.
“People who are sick are unproductive,” she said. “So in North Carolina, we have 500,000 working people who are one illness and one major injury away from bankruptcy. When the working poor are out of work due to illness, not only can they not pay for their medical care, they can’t pay rent, they can’t pay utilities, they can’t even buy food.”
Series of unfortunate events
Allan Jolly of Mecklenburg County shared the series of maladies that have fallen on his family over the past several years, including two car crashes, multiple broken bones, and an antibiotic-resistant staph infection.
To pay for the care, Jolly, a short-haul truck driver, exhausted his savings and 401K savings. The family ended up on Medicaid.
His family’s doctors said physical therapy would key to his and his wife’s recoveries. But the number of physical therapy sessions covered by North Carolina Medicaid was cut to three per year, he said. The Jollys instead started going to the YMCA to practice self-therapy, and that’s how his wife re-broke her leg.[sponsor]
“Because of these cuts, I was forced into a life of total disability,” said Jolly, a self-described “former Republican.”
“I see my family’s experience as a failure of the North Carolina representatives,” he said, tearing up. “I had a chance to get out and get better. My doctors told me that with physical therapy I would be able to get back to work and be a productive tax-paying member of society. I had a chance to support my family. You took that from me. I’m stuck and will never get out.”
Reidsville family physician Stephen Luking also got emotional talking about a number of his patients who could have been helped by Medicaid expansion.
“You won’t see the words on a headstone ‘killed by no Medicaid access,’ but nonetheless, they are dying,” Luking said.
Two of his patients are a mother named Angela and her 23-year-old son.
Luking helped deliver her son by cesarean section because his head was twice the size of a normal newborn. The 23-year-old has lived his entire life with a severe disability.
“That child’s mother is a saint. She has slept in a cot outside her son’s room in a small doublewide trailer for over 20 years,” he said.
Because her son has a feeding tube, a tracheostomy and takes 30 prescription medications, Luking said she is up and down all night to administer feedings and give medications.
“Angela is considered able bodied by our General Assembly, one of 500,000 able bodied,” the doctor continued. “They wouldn’t dare point a crooked finger at her. I feel that she is serving society well. She’s certainly serving that child well.”
Correction: This story originally stated Graig Meyer represented Durham.