SHERIDAN — With only days left to introduce new bills in the Wyoming Senate, Sheridan County residents braved rainfall Monday night to draw attention to a bill they feel deserves legislative consideration.
“It’s crunch time down in Cheyenne,” Medicaid Expansion Rally attendee Hollis Hackman said. “They have until Wednesday this week to get the bill out on the floor and have a vote…We want there to be a floor debate and a vote. We want to get this thing on the floor so we can talk about it.”
The bill in question, supported by Hackman and 22 other attendees at the rally in Grinnell Plaza Monday, is Senate File 154. Proposed by Sen Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, the bill is one of many recent attempts to expand Medicaid coverage in the state of Wyoming.
The bill, like previous proposals, would expand Medicaid to currently uninsured people whose income is at or below 138% of the federal poverty level. If approved by state legislators, Medicaid expansion would cover approximately 24,000 residents in its first two years of implementation, according to estimates from the Wyoming Department of Health.
Several speakers at the rally emphasized the importance of accessible health care. Event organizer and Sheridan County Democratic Party President Danielle Arnoux said she personally qualified for Medicaid for the first time last year — a life-saving blessing as she faced depression and suicidal thoughts in the wake of employment and financial struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I wouldn’t have been able to qualify for Medicaid and go to the doctor,” Arnoux said. “…I feel like it really saved my life this year.”
That sort of life-changing medical care deserves to be accessed by more people, Arnoux said.
“I just believe that we are a wealthy enough state and a wealthy enough country that everybody in our state can be covered,” Arnoux said.
Hackman noted Wyomingites, through paying their federal taxes, had been paying for Medicaid expansion in other states since a provision in 2010’s Affordable Care Act first called for expansion of Medicaid eligibility. But with the Legislature’s repeated failure to pass a Medicaid expansion bill, the state has been unable to reap that bounty for itself, Hackman said.
“You’re paying for it, and I’m paying for it with our federal taxes,” Hackman said. “But because we live in Wyoming, we don’t get any benefit out of it if we fall into that group below the 138% of the federal poverty level.”
Currently, Wyoming is one of just 12 states that have not passed Medicaid expansion legislation, Rothfuss told the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee last week.
“We’ve refused to accept the programs that we’ve paid for,” Rothfuss said. “But we paid for them in other states, and those states send their regards and appreciation.”
In previous years, state lawmakers have frequently cited the cost of expansion as a reason to vote against it. Under Medicaid expansion, the federal government covers 90% of the costs, while states cover the remaining 10%. In Wyoming, that 10% equals roughly $20 million in the first two years of implementation.
Lawmakers have also expressed concern about whether the federal government would uphold their end of the bargain.
During the meeting of the labor committee last week, in which the bill was approved on a 3-2 vote, Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, noted Medicaid expansion was effectively a debt-funded program and wondered whether the federal government would be able to continue forwarding money to the state.
Rothfuss acknowledged Hutchings was correct and said his bill has a safeguard allowing the state to exit Medicaid expansion if the federal match for expansion dips below 90% or the match for those currently covered by Medicaid falls below 50%.
The cost to the federal government of Medicaid expansion in Wyoming is roughly $120 million, according to Rothfuss, or roughly 0.0004% of the nation’s $28 trillion in debt. For that relatively small price tag, thousands of Wyoming residents could be positively impacted, Rothfuss said.
There is also a financial motivation for expanding Medicaid right now, Rothfuss said.
The latest federal stimulus bill signed into law by President Joseph Biden last week allows states that have not expanded Medicaid to gain a 5% boost to their traditional Medicaid matching program, which would generate roughly $120 million in new revenue for the state every two years.
During the labor committee meeting, public comment was overwhelmingly in favor of the expansion while legislators were more mixed. Those who spoke against the bill objected largely on moral grounds and expressed concern about increasing federal involvement in the state’s health care system.
“I haven’t heard anything that didn’t say we’re just going to move further into the universal health care block, and that is a big red flag for me,” Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, said.
“I don’t know how we get the federal government out of the health care business, but that would be my answer (on how to improve the state’s health care system),” Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, said.
Rothfuss said he was familiar with the moral concerns of many legislators about the expansion, but noted this moral stand was doing irreparable harm to Wyoming residents by denying them access to health care coverage.
“We’re taking a principled stand with the lives of 25,000 Wyomingites,” Rothfuss said. “…Those are the lives we’re playing with, and we’ve offered them nothing for the last decade.”
Julie Willis, a Dayton resident who spoke at the Medicaid Expansion Rally Monday, agreed Medicaid expansion was truly a matter of life or death for thousands of Wyoming residents.
“Right now, our state senators are saying they don’t even want to bring this to the floor,” Willis said. “It’s absolutely outrageous. I know people who have died without access to health care… We need to tell them this is our life. This is life or death. When they deny health care, they are killing people. We will not stand for this.”
While the Medicaid-expansion bill could still be considered by the Senate, it is facing an incredibly tight time frame. As of Tuesday morning, Senate File 154 was 30th on a list of 35 general file bills to be considered by the Senate. Wednesday is the last day for general file bills to be reported out of committee and considered by their chamber of origin on first reading.
As the deadline looms, Arnoux said she urged citizens to contact their senators and let them know the Medicaid expansion is something they should consider before it’s too late.
“A lot of regular Joe citizens don’t know that they have the power to call and to write and to contact their representatives, so that’s what we’re trying to encourage them to do,” Arnoux said.