CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A Wyoming legislative committee heard impassioned testimony Thursday from citizens urging the state to accept federal money to expand the Medicaid program to cover thousands more low-income adults. The committee plans to take up the issue again Friday.
Several witnesses addressing the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee in Cheyenne said they can't afford health insurance on the open market.
Duane Keown, of Laramie, told the committee that he has a son living in a group home that receives Medicaid payments to care for him and others.
Keown said he's a staunch UW football fan and noted that the school has spent millions on sports facilities and coaching contracts.
"The measurement for Wyoming's civilization is not how many football games we win or the cost of our athletic facilities, or the salaries of the coaches," Keown said. "It's how we care for the disabled, the old and the disadvantaged."
Committee Co-Chairwoman Rep. Elaine Harvey, a Lovell Republican, said Thursday evening that the committee would vote Friday on whether to endorse any form of Medicaid expansion.
Republicans control both houses of the Legislature. It voted early last year to reject $50 million in federal money for the optional expansion that would extend coverage to about 17,600 low-income adults. The federal government has pledged to pay 90 percent of the cost of expanding the coverage for the first few years.
Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, has urged lawmakers to reject the proposed program expansion again in the legislative session that starts next month. Medicaid expansion is a cornerstone of the federal Affordable Care Act, which has galvanized Republican opposition nationwide.
Mead points to the federal government's history of repeatedly reneging on promises to the state and says he doesn't trust it to follow through on further promises to sustain increased Medicaid funding.
The Medicaid program currently serves more than 77,000 people in Wyoming at an annual cost that exceeds $500 million, split evenly between the state and federal governments. Wyoming Health Department Director Tom Forslund has said expanding the Medicaid program would save the state money by getting people off of other programs.
Harvey said Thursday she would support seeing Wyoming adopt an approach similar to Arkansas' under which new participants would get private health insurance with their premiums covered by Medicaid coverage. She said she wants to specify that the state could cut the program if the federal government reneged on its funding promises.
Harvey said that approach would encourage people to become informed about how much money they're spending on health care services. "The American public has been removed from what it truly costs because the attitude has been, 'Oh, insurance will cover that,'" she said.
Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Tom Hirsig told the committee that nearly 5,000 people in the state have signed up for approved insurance through a federal Internet site, called an insurance exchange. The site was plagued with problems when it opened in early October and many people at first found it impossible to register for new coverage even as their old coverage was set to expire.
"People's frustration with the exchange has decreased dramatically," Hirsig said.
Scores of people held a demonstration outside the Cheyenne government building where the committee met, urging lawmakers to expand Medicaid. Among them was Tom Gosar of Laramie, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, who said Republicans need to do more than simply oppose the expansion.
"We just wonder why you wouldn't do this," Gosar said. "You cover 17,600 people, by their numbers, if not more. And we all know that it's a problem — both my side of the aisle and that side of the aisle, and government's about solutions and there's no solution. And that's really frustrating, and these are real people."