Saturday, April 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: The price of ideology: a woman's life (w/video)

I believe that every Floridian who is sick should be able to see a doctor. Every person should get the necessary care to stay healthy and alive. Sadly, not every Floridian can afford health care.

One of my constituents, Charlene Dill, could not afford it. Last month, at 32, Charlene died of heart disease, leaving her three young children behind.

This young mother didn't have to die.

Charlene knew she had a heart problem, but she couldn't afford the medications and frequent visits to the doctor. She worked three jobs but earned only $11,000 last year. With only $11,000 to feed her three children, keep a roof over their heads and pay the property taxes on her trailer, Charlene couldn't afford standard health coverage. And because she made more than $5,400, she was not eligible for free or reduced-cost coverage under Florida Medicaid.

Floridians with annual incomes between $5,400 and $11,400 are stuck in the "Medicaid expansion gap." Charlene Dill was one of an estimated 1 million uninsured Floridians who fell into that gap. It cost Charlene her life.

When Congress passed Obamacare, it included a provision to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor, like Charlene. States expanding Medicaid would receive the full cost of that coverage from the federal government for three years, and then 90 percent of the cost after that. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that states could drop that expansion after the first three years, without penalty, and pay nothing.

The federal government committed more than $50 billion to fund Florida's Medicaid expansion. You might think that our cash-strapped state would be clamoring for money to provide health care to the sick and poor. But you would be wrong. Republican ideologues in the Legislature refused the money. And now, Charlene Dill is gone.

Florida has the second highest rate of uninsured individuals in the nation. Twenty percent of our state has no coverage. When these people get sick, they go to the emergency room. Emergency rooms cannot provide long-term care, manage chronic health conditions or provide lifesaving treatments on a one-off basis.

Charlene could never get the care from one single visit to the emergency room that she needed to stay alive. And she won't be the only one. One study estimates that approximately 1,158 to 2,221 Floridians will die each year as a result of Republicans' stubborn refusal to expand Medicaid.

Even if you leave aside the obvious moral merit of providing health care to nearly 1 million Floridians, the GOP's refusal to expand Medicaid defies any economic sense. Florida's forfeiture of tens of billions of federal dollars means that our federal tax dollars will instead pay for health coverage for the working poor in New York, California and other states that expanded Medicaid. But our own residents will receive nothing. That's a high price to pay for the GOP's blind adherence to ideology.

The rejection of Medicaid funding is only the latest instance of our GOP state legislators putting party politics ahead of what's good for Florida. Their intractable opposition to the president has led them repeatedly to turn down federal aid with no strings attached — money that is urgently needed in central Florida.

In 2011, GOP lawmakers attempted to block $8.3 million in federal aid to allow the Osceola County Health Department to expand its community health centers. Why? Because they didn't like Obamacare.

Lawmakers also turned down $2.1 million over a five-year period to help elderly and disabled nursing home patients regain independence and move back home — again, because they didn't like Obamacare. (Ironically, the same legislators so morally opposed to accepting any money from Obamacare made an exception for $2.6 million in funding for "abstinence-only" sex education.)

Republican legislators argue that accepting funds from a bill that they opposed would be politically "inconsistent." But what is more important, saving face or saving lives?

To Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee, on behalf of all of Florida, I have one request of you: Choose life. Expand Medicaid. Take the money. And spare 1 million Floridians from suffering, from sickness and from death.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat, represents District 9, which sweeps east and mostly south of Orlando. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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