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May 1st, 2013

America has got to expand Medicaid

Marc Morial

Last week, 400,000 poor and underserved Louisianans, many them people of color, were shut out of potentially life-saving health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

A Louisiana House health committee voted down a measure that would have forced Governor Bobby Jindal to opt into the Medicaid expansion provision of ACA that is being subsidized by the federal government to cover vulnerable communities. Even more discouraging was the unfortunate reality that the vote was right along party lines. Is it too much to ask to keep partisanship out of our health care? I certainly hope not.

Gov. Bobby Jindal made it clear that he won’t accept federal funding to expand Medicaid. This is coming at a huge cost to Louisianans.

Louisiana has the second-highest rate of uninsured adults in the country. Many people - especially women and African Americans - in the state lack access to basic health care. In fact, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, 33 do not have a single OB/GYN.

Accepting federal dollars would mean that an estimated 398,000 more hardworking Louisianans would get basic health care when they need it, without facing devastating medical bills.

Medicaid expansion would also have the most positive impact on African Americans in the state; nearly half of those in our community who don’t have health insurance would likely gain coverage. Across the board, the percentage of uninsured in the state could actually drop by as much as 60 percent.

It would also be a huge benefit to the state’s economy. If the state doesn’t accept federal funding, it could actually cost Louisiana’s economy $15.7 billion dollars over the next decade – money that could go to job creation and supporting small businesses, the backbone of our nation’s economy.

There is no doubt that this would be life-changing for many Louisianans. More people would be able to afford preventive health care. They would be able to avoid chronic health problems, costly long-term medical care, and personal bankruptcy - especially among African Americans, who often shoulder the increased cost of health care.

Of course, Louisiana is just one example.

Some politicians in other parts of the country continue to put their own self-interests before the hardworking families in their state. In Texas, for example, Governor Rick Perry has vowed to block Medicaid expansion. That’s especially disturbing as Texas is the only state in the country that ranks higher than Louisiana in terms of uninsured people.

I write this as someone who understands via experience - not just hypotheses and projections - the fiscal burden many local governments are facing. As the former mayor of New Orleans, a former Louisiana State Senator and current head of the National Urban League, I’ve seen how basic health care can help empower people in underserved communities.

State lawmakers have a unique opportunity to care for more people than ever before, to make their states healthier than ever before and, in the process, save their states millions of dollars. It’s a pity that Louisiana lawmakers seem determined to reject what could be a boon for the state and for its residents who have suffered enough in recent years.

It’s up to lawmakers to lead on these issues, to accept federal aid to expand Medicaid and provide basic health care to millions of women and families. By doing so, they have the potential to transform their states, improve - and save - lives, and reduce taxpayer costs.

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.

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