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Tomblin urged to expand Medicaid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Religious, community, labor, medical and political leaders gathered at Christ Church United Methodist in Charleston Sunday afternoon to urge Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to expand Medicaid coverage in the state.

Expanded coverage would include an additional 120,000 West Virginians in families earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, a monetary amount that varies by family size.

The expansion would also bring an additional $500 million in federal funds to West Virginia, as well as 6,200 new jobs, according to Perry Bryant and other supporters.

Bryant, who heads West Virginians for Affordable Health Care (WVAHC), said current standards require a family of three to make less than $6,000 a year to qualify for Medicaid.

"The federal government will pay virtually all the cost of the Medicaid expansion. For the first three years, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost for the expansion," stated a leaflet distributed on Sunday by WVAHC.

"After that, the federal share gradually decreases, but never drops below 90 percent."

If Tomblin decides to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Health Care Act, signed into law in March 2010, it would begin covering West Virginia families of three earning about $26,600 a year. Tomblin is expected to make a decision sometime in the next three weeks.

The June 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Health Care Act gave states the right to decide whether to expand Medicaid coverage. More than 20 states have already approved the expansion.

The Rev. Randy Flanagan, Christ Church's pastor who moderated Sunday's gathering, said, "Better health care promotes physical, social, mental and spiritual well-being."

The Rev. Jeffrey S. Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, said, "In 2010, 223 people in West Virginia died from the lack of health insurance. This expansion will bring healthier families and 6,200 new jobs."

Late last month, Bishop Michael J. Bransfeld, leader of West Virginia's Roman Catholic Church, wrote to Tomblin, urging him to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income state residents.

Today, about 18 percent of West Virginians depend on Medicaid, even though the state currently has some of the nation's most restrictive eligibility standards for Medicaid.

Former Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, a physician at Charleston Area Medical Center, said, "Those who qualify for Medicaid now pay about 30 percent of their health-care bills. If Medicaid expands, that will go down to nearly zero."

Hospitals, Foster stressed, are also facing "significant risks," especially "safety-net hospitals" that provide medical care to poor patients.

"Of all the forms of injustice, inequality in health care is the most shocking and inhumane," Foster said.

Renate Pore, director of the West Virginia Children and Families Coalition, said children would be half of all beneficiaries of the Medicaid expansion being considered by Tomblin. Blind, disabled and patients over 65 would also be major beneficiaries.

Today, Bryant said, "72 percent of Medicaid costs are paid by the federal government, while 28 percent of those costs are picked up by the states."

(WVAHC provides additional information on its website: www.wvahc.org.)

Rick Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee's Economic Justice Project, said those who will benefit from expanding Medicaid include "people who wait on us in stores and restaurants and people who take care of our kids and elderly parents."

Beth Baldwin, immediate past president of the West Virginia Nurses Association, said she is happy "6,200 new jobs will be created. That will help nurses. We should call upon our state leaders and our governor to support this expansion."

Josh Sword, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, said, "Most union members have access to employer-based health insurance. But quality, affordable health care is for every West Virginian. It is a right, not a privilege."

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Healthy Kids and Family Coalition, said, "5,300 veterans in West Virginia would also receive health care if this is passed."

A recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pointed out 2,600 uninsured military spouses would also get medical benefits if West Virginia expands its Medicaid coverage.Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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