Dear Texas Legislature: Expand Medicaid; taxpayers will thank you

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Some in the Texas Legislature are pushing the idea that it's more important to make a statement to the federal government than it is to provide health coverage to more than a million low-income Texans. These same leaders want the public to believe that it is better to be uninsured than to be covered under the Medicaid program.

That's a tough sale to the mother working two part-time jobs making minimum wage. Or the public hospitals trying to find a way to care for the masses of uninsured patients who show up in emergency rooms for routine care because they have no other option.

The reality is, Medicaid is a program that serves as a lifeline for more than three million Texans who are almost exclusively children, disabled adults, low-income elderly or pregnant mothers.

Sure, the program needs improvement. Medicaid underpays doctors, leaving many to limit the number of Medicaid recipients they treat or not see Medicaid patients at all. But Texas legislators and the governor are responsible for setting these payment rates and could fix them at any time -- with the federal government paying for a substantial amount of the cost.

Furthermore, from Arkansas to Arizona, state officials are finding creative approaches to cover their low-income uninsured constituents in a way that works for their state. And federal officials are showing extreme flexibility in approving these plans.

With leadership, Texas can also find a way to bring in the $100 billion in federal funds available over the next decade to cover a big portion of our state's uninsured, without calling it Medicaid.

But so far, many of our elected officials at the Capitol have chosen to take this as an opportunity to continue driving political rhetoric about state's rights, federal debt and "broken" public programs. They should be preparing explanations for the taxpayer who is faced with ever-increasing property taxes to help the local public hospitals care for the uninsured.

And they'll need a message for the insurance customer whose premiums help foot the bill for the care others can't afford to pay out-of-pocket. But, most importantly, they'll need answers for the more than one million Texans -- most of whom are working each and every day -- who could gain insurance if our leaders were serious about finding a solution that works for Texas.

We may never again see an opportunity like this to expand coverage and to start reining in the burden that having the nation's highest rate of uninsured has on our uninsured families, hospitals, taxpayers and businesses. The time for excuses is over. Our leaders can't let the chance to bring federally funded health coverage to Texans pass.

DeAnn Friedholm is director of health reform for Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, and a former Texas Medicaid director.

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