My Medicaid matters

October 5, 2011

RALLIES WERE held across the country last month to oppose a bipartisan assault on Medicaid, the government's health care program for the poor. Dozens of organizations, from Access Living to the National Spinal Association, to the Service Employees Internationl Union and AFSCME, sponsored the rallies.

President Barack Obama recently announced $72 billion in federal cuts to the Medicaid program. These come on top of reductions already made by state governments that have trimmed the rolls by hundreds of thousands of people to balance state deficits.

Medicaid is the health care safety net for the poor and people with disabilities. Over 58 million people are on Medicaid--children are 49 percent of recipients, and the disabled account for 15 percent. Many recipients live on fixed incomes, so any increase in health care costs or decrease in benefits pushes them deeper into poverty.

Under the agreement reached during the debt-ceiling debacle, a "super committee" composed of six Republicans and six Democrats is supposed to come up with a proposal for cutbacks--if the committee can't agree, automatic cuts begin to kick in. It's a lose-lose for Medicaid recipients. Deal or no deal, there will be a reduction in benefits, increased out-of-pocket costs and cuts to Medicaid providers. But conveniently for Obama, the cuts won't kick in until 2013, after the presidential election.

THE BIGGEST of the "My Medicaid Matters" demonstrations was in Washington, D.C., where more than 1,000 people attended the rally on Capitol Hill and speakers included Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders.

Vanessa Beck, director of Health Care Now! a national organization in favor of single-payer health care, spoke to the crowd about the impact of the cuts if they are passed. "We'll see increased illness, disability, poverty and death," she said. "We can't let that happen." Beck talked about the need to expand Medicare to everyone, "from birth to death, whether you're a person with a disability, an undocumented immigrant or whether you have a job."

In Chicago, the local chapter of ADAPT--a national grassroots activist organization for people with disabilities--led the My Medicaid Matters rally. About 70 people attended. Speakers pointed out that Medicaid is a lifeline for those with chronic disabilities who will need access to specialists and must take expensive medications for their entire lives.

A critical benefit of Medicaid is the Personal Care Assistant program, which is being threatened with deep cuts or elimination. Personal care assistants help the disabled take showers, get dressed and prepare meals. "Having help at home keeps people out of nursing homes and in the community," said Tom Wilson, a community organizer for Access Living and the emcee of the rally.

A contingent from the rally marched to Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin's office to demand he oppose the cuts to Medicaid. He wasn't there.

Mary Denton, a home care worker and member of SEIU, spoke about how in-home services keep people with disabilities independent, and at the same time provide jobs.

Michelle Garcia, a 34-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair, has cerebral palsy and is a member of the organization Disabled Americans Want Work Now (DAWWN). She used to have Medicaid and a home health aide with sufficient hours, but was cut off when she started working.

Garcia is caught in a classic Medicaid conundrum: If a person with a disability works, Medicaid no longer considers them disabled and they lose eligibility.

Private insurance doesn't cover personal care assistants, so Garcia pays out-of-pocket. She can only afford two hours a day and needs assistance getting out of bed, showering, dressing and with cooking. Garcia has to pay about $200 a month in co-pays for her medication and has, at times, not filled prescriptions because she didn't have the money. Garcia came to the rally to support Medicaid and said, "It's totally insane that I was cut off Medicaid because I can work."

Sonja Rotenberg, a member of the Illinois Single-Payer Coalition, said health care is a human right and advocated for a national, single-payer health care system that covered everyone.

Henry Williams uses an electric wheelchair and has an amputated right leg, a vision impairment, diabetes and many other health problems that has him taking 13 pills a day. At the rally, Williams expressed the new mood of anger in this country and the willingness to fight:

It's going to take people to let these [politicians] know that we're not playing. We're no longer going to sit back and let them do anything to us, to disabled people. If we have to block the highways, expressways, anything, we're going to.

This is an atrocity. They're talking about a 36 percent cut in Medicaid across the board and stopping the personal assistant system. You've got people in bed who can't turn themselves over unless someone helps them. What will these people do?

Willams ended his speech by singing the civil rights song "Eyes on the Prize" and invited the crowd to join him in the chorus: "I know the one thing we did right was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on."

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