JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — More than 20 people were arrested Tuesday after demonstrators briefly interrupted the debate in the Missouri Senate to protest lawmakers' refusal to accept federal dollars to expand the state's Medicaid program.
A few hundred clergy and other protesters with the Missouri Medicaid Coalition filled the public galleries, chanted and sang hymns. The disruption led Senate Republican leaders to halt work for about an hour as Capitol Police worked to clear the galleries.
A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, Mike O'Connell, said 23 demonstrators were arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave the gallery when asked by Capitol Police. They were checked for active search warrants, but were not handcuffed or taken into custody. It is up to the Cole County prosecutor to determine if charges will be filed.
O'Connell added that everyone at the demonstration was peaceful and there were "no problems, whatsoever."
The protesters chanted "bring dignity" and "don't block expansion" as senators were discussing legislation that was not Medicaid-related. The Rev. Cassandra Gould of Quinn Chapel MAE in Jefferson City said she joined fellow clergy members to protest the Legislature's inaction when it comes to expanding Medicaid.
"It is disappointing and disgusting. If they won't talk about it, we will," she said. "It is immoral and people are dying."
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said there is a knee-jerk reaction to ignore the demonstration because the Senate doesn't want to condone that behavior.
"We deal with very serious and sometimes contentious issues that stir people's passion," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't think disrupting the Senate from conducting its business is a good tactic."
Missouri Republicans have repeatedly rejected expanding Medicaid eligibility under the terms of President Barack Obama's health care law. States that expand adult Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of the poverty level — about $27,000 annually for a family of three — can initially receive full federal funding for those added to the rolls. That federal aid is then gradually reduced to a 90 percent share, with states picking up the rest.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who has advocated for expanding the program for low-income adults, estimates that 300,000 people would gain coverage. Republicans have raised concerns about the long-term costs, especially if the federal government reneges on its funding promises.
The Republican-led Legislature is unlikely to seriously consider Medicaid expansion as time runs out on this year's session and lawmakers face a May 16 mandatory adjournment.