Governor Jay Nixon told reporters yesterday that lawmakers in Jefferson City are trying to balance the state budget on the backs of some of the state's neediest: poor blind people. But members of the House budget committee said cuts to health care for blind Missourians are necessary to pay for higher education, which the governor wants to trim.
Nixon spoke in Columbia, to a crowd of a few dozen blind people, service dogs, and reporters.
"I haven't had one college president come to me and say, give me money from the money that pays for health care for needy blind people."
Last week the House budget committee voted to eliminate a state program that covers health care for blind people with limited resources but whose income is too high to otherwise qualify for Medicaid.
"This is their lifeline, their lifeline for health care, and there aren't other options for them," said Nixon.
He was talking about people like Jacqueline Peters, who has been blind all her life. "If I were not blind, I wouldn't qualify for Medicaid," she said. "It's awful to say, but I'm thankful say the good Lord brought me to this life like I am."
Peters worked for most of her life, but now, she says, in her "golden years," she gets by on social security and the state blind pension. Not enough, she says, to pay for any kind of private insurance.
"The cost of the health insurance would be so much, I wouldn't be able to pay it. So what good would it do me if I couldn't pay it? Then I wouldn't be able to eat or have a place to live."
The House budget proposal would eliminate $28 million in funding that currently pays for health care for about 2,800 blind Missourians. But Representative Ryan Silvey, Republican of Kansas City, who chairs the House budget committee, says that would affect just five percent of blind people in the state.
To qualify for the health care program, applicants must have less than $20 thousand in assets (not including the home they live in), but there is no cap on income.
"Someone could literally be making $100 thousand a year, live in a home that they own themselves, and still qualify for this program, as long as they don't have over $20 thousand in investment accounts or other assets," said Silvey.
The $28 million saved by cutting the program would go to higher education. Silvey said the governor has recommended cuts to colleges and universities every year he's been in office.
"We believe that's simply unsustainable. You can't continue to cut and cut and cut education, while continuing to fund programs for people who exceed the income requirements for Medicaid."
But Gary Wunder, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, said this should not be framed as an either-or choice between education and health care for the blind.
"I love higher education. I'm the beneficiary of higher education. I have a college degree," he said. "All I know is you that you shouldn't find the people in most need to try to get your money."
The full House will consider the cuts after lawmakers return from break next week. Nixon says if the House doesn't restore funding, he'll work with the Senate to do so.
But Silvey accused Nixon of playing politics, holding press conferences and issuing statements, but not reaching out to lawmakers to find a solution.
"If he would like to come to us and say, 'You know, we understand education is important to you, this program is important to me, maybe we should find some other place in government to cut to fund both of them,' I'd be happy to have that conversation."