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Dozens rally at Alabama State House demanding Medicaid expansion

Medicaid expansion advocates from all across the state rallied in front of the Alabama State House on Tuesday, urging legislators and Gov. Kay Ivey to expand the health insurance program.

Medicaid and Alabama

Alabama is one of just 11 states that has not expanded Medicaid following the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, a bill that both expands eligibility to the program as well as provides significant federal funding assistance to do so. South Dakota became the latest state to expand the program, with the North Carolina Legislature having recently agreed to move forward with Medicaid expansion.

Currently, Alabama has among the strictest Medicaid eligibility requirements in the country. An Alabama adult is only eligible for Medicaid if they are pregnant, responsible for a child, has a disability or family member with a disability, or is above 65 years old. 

Many in the Alabama Legislature have pointed to costs as a reason for not expanding Medicaid. According to a 2022 study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, expanding the program would increase the state’s Medicaid expenditures by $225.4 million per year over the next six years.

Given the federal funding assistance tied with expanding the program, however, expanding Medicaid is estimated to yield an average annual savings of $397.8 million over six years, create an estimated 20,083 jobs, and have an estimated economic impact of $1.89 billion over the next six years. Expanding the program would also extend coverage to 283,636 Alabamians.

‘It’s needed today, it’s needed right now’

Organized in part by Cover Alabama, a coalition of more than 100 community groups, businesses and health care providers, the rally saw more than 50 participants take to the steps of the Alabama State House. 

“Alabama is one of only 11 states that has failed to close the coverage gap and extend Medicaid to working families, (and) this has resulted in nearly 300,000 of our neighbors, family members and friends going without health coverage, or struggling to afford it,” said Cover Alabama campaign director Debbie Smith. 

“It’s the daughter who aged out of Medicaid and can no longer get treatment for her rare brain condition. It’s the dad who lost his restaurant job because he wasn’t able to stand up long enough to work grueling hours in the kitchen. It’s the sister who died of breast cancer because she didn’t have access to coverage that would have caught her cancer before it became deadly, and all of these stories are true.”

Smith also spoke to the help expanding Medicaid could give to rural hospitals, as eight have closed in Alabama since 2011, with more than a dozen more at risk of closure within the next year.

“With all that in mind, it really makes you wonder why on earth our state has refused to expand Medicaid,” Smith continued. “For years, state leaders have said that our state can’t afford to do it, however, thanks to incentives to close the coverage gap included in the American Rescue Plan Act, any concerns about that cost should be gone.”

More than 50 people rallied in front of the Alabama State House.

Kenneth King, a Birmingham resident since 2008, about his surgery for a heart valve replacement. King did not have health insurance at the time.

“Subsequently, by Alabama not having affordable health care insurance that I can buy into, I have over $150,000 in hospital bills and medical expenses,” King said.

“We have politicians and elected officials who we vote for and support, and they seem to not have the compassion and concern about Alabamians who elected them into this very State House. I believe that it’s time now that we have affordable health care, Medicaid expansion for myself and other families. It’s needed today, it’s needed right now.”

Another speaker at the rally was Jesse Odland, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq under the 214th Fires Brigade.

U.S. Army veteran Jesse Odland speaks at the Medicaid expansion rally.

Odland told Alabama Daily News that after returning home, he returned to his passion as a cook, working at a number of different restaurants and hotels.

Unfortunately, Odland said, he began to experience significant health issues, developing edema in his legs as his body retained excess fluids.

As a cook, Odland did not have health insurance either, nor was he eligible for Medicaid.

“My body wasn’t processing the bad fluids and I retained about 40-50 lbs worth of fluid in my system; I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t put shoes on, I couldn’t get out of bed,” Odland said. 

Because he didn’t have health insurance, Odland sought care at emergency rooms multiple times, re-explaining his symptoms to new doctors each time and racking up significant medical debt.

Regarding the praise often given to veterans by state leaders, Odland urged them to take action and expand Medicaid.

“It’s a bunch of lip service is what I hear, and the only thing I have to say is put up or shut up,” Odland said. 

“Either you support the veterans – the people that you represent – or you’re just out there for your own agenda, and to me it seems like that’s typically the story. I love my country, but I know there are other countries that have better health care systems than we do and they’re not suffering like we are.”

Back in the State House, the rally participants gained some support among legislators who spoke to Alabama Daily News about their thoughts toward Medicaid expansion.

“That’s something that we’ve been fighting for for years, our Democratic Caucus,” said Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee. 

“There is a need, and what I’ve been trying to tell my Republican colleagues is it’s all political because (Barack) Obama started it; I say forget Obama, let’s find ways of providing health care for our working-class poor.”

Rep. Kenyatte Hassell, D-Montgomery, told Alabama Daily News that the rally was “good to see,” and said he was hopeful state leaders would expand Medicaid this session.

“It’s good to see, we’ve got a lot of support coming out of the community to expand Medicaid,” Hassell said. “That’s one of our agenda’s in our caucus to expand Medicaid, and we’re praying that that happens this session for the governor and the Republicans to expand Medicaid.”

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