Echoing testimonies from earlier hearings in Independence and Springfield, witness after witness spoke in support of Medicaid expansion at a House interim committee hearing in Columbia on Saturday.
Darvin Bentlage drove four hours from Golden City to Columbia to testify. Bentlage is a farmer who’s been uninsured for nearly three decades. He has paid much of his cancer and Hepatitis C treatments out of pocket and by borrowing money. Because despite spending half of his less than $40,000 income paying off his farm, Bentlage doesn’t qualify for Medicaid in Missouri. The program currently does not cover adults without dependent children, no matter how little they make.
“They need to direct a little bit of money towards helping people out. Most people aren’t here trying to get something, you know? They need help,” Bentlage said. “You expect your government to help you a little bit.”
He says in 2012, he would have had to pay about $14,000 a year for a premium. That’s about half of what he actually made that year: He said he only made $32,000, because of the drought.
At 57, Bentlage has eight years to go until he qualifies for Medicare.
“My only other choice if I don't make it until 65 is to run for their position,” Bentlage joked, gesturing at the legislative members of the House panel. “Get the health insurance they got.”
The Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010, asks states to expand Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $30,000 for a family of four. The federal government would pay the full price tag of the expansion's first three years. In the last session, state Republicans rejected all efforts to expand the program.
Bentlage was one of dozens of witnesses testifying in support of Medicaid expansion at Saturday's hearing. Individuals shared personal stories of living without health insurance. Disability advocates testified of wanting to have a job, but having to be unemployed to qualify for Medicaid, which helps pay for their independent living programs. Physicians spoke of uninsured patients who’s had to make tough decisions between paying rent or getting medicine. Debra Howenstine is one of those physicians. She’s worked with mid-Missouri’s uninsured population for about 25 years. She says one of the benefits of having Medicaid or any insurance coverage is access to preventive services.
“[Those services] ultimately catch conditions when they are still manageable,” Howenstine said. “And when there can be early intervention and when it less likely to result in a costly hospital stay and a medical condition that can be managed at the point.”
Out of the 36 public testimonies heard in the nearly seven-hour meeting, only two witnesses spoke against increasing the Medicaid eligibility as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. Bentlage, the farmer from Golden City, says he hopes legislators take politics out of the equation as they continue to discuss Medicaid reform.
“There’s common ground somewhere,” Bentlage said.
The committee, chaired by Rep. Noel Torpey (R-Independence), has three more public hearings to hold in the next few weeks in Kennett, Cameron and St. Louis. Torpey's committee will then write a report to submit to a second committee that will draft legislation for next year's session.