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Republican plan to cut Medicaid is just plain mean

Cutting Medicaid, the health safety net for the poor, is more than shortsighted. It's an act of meanness unbecoming of the party of supposed family values.

August 02, 2012|David Lazarus
  • Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) is sponsoring a bill, backed by 47 House Republicans, that would freeze federal Medicaid spending, thus forcing states to be more frugal.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) is sponsoring a bill, backed by 47 House Republicans,… (Michael Conroy, Associated…)

Republican leaders are determined to protect rich people from paying higher taxes. Now they also want to reduce health coverage for the poor.

You've really got to wonder about these guys.

My colleague Noam N. Levey reported this week that conservative politicians at the state and federal level are laying the groundwork to scale back Medicaid if the GOP takes control of Congress and the White House in November.

Some Republican governors are already cutting coverage for low-income people, arguing that Medicaid has grown ineffective and unaffordable. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers in Washington are renewing calls to limit Medicaid funding from the federal government.

This is scary stuff. Medicaid, or Medi-Cal as it's known in California, is the safety net for individuals and families who can't afford health coverage or don't receive medical benefits from employers.

Medicaid and the relatedChildren's HealthInsurance Program cover about 70 million people. Half this number are poor children. The program costs more than $400 billion a year.

"Creativity will unleash significant cost reductions," freshman Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) told Levey. Rokita is sponsoring a bill, backed by 47 House Republicans, that would freeze federal Medicaid spending, thus forcing states to be more frugal.

"Some [states] will do it better than others," he said. "But that is the responsibility and the magic of federalism."

If Rokita and his conservative colleagues want to see some real magic, they should meet Paulina Cifuentez, who had nowhere else to turn except Medi-Cal after finding out several months ago that the baby in her womb faced a serious breathing disorder.

Cifuentez, 30, of Hollywood, isn't some chronic welfare recipient living off food stamps and unemployment checks.

Until she quit her job several weeks before her daughter's birth on June 29, she earned a steady paycheck as a clerical worker for a research facility, which didn't offer health benefits.

Cifuentez's 30-year-old husband, Jose, works steadily as well, albeit for a Los Angeles restaurant that pays minimum wage but also doesn't provide health coverage.

The couple's daughter required surgery after being delivered and had to remain in the hospital for a month. She finally came home this week.

"Medi-Cal is a lifesaver," Cifuentez told me. "Without it, my daughter probably would have died."

Medicaid has some real problems, not least the fact that many physicians won't treat people covered by the program because they say the government's reimbursement rate is too low. Medicaid is also straining to keep up with rising demand that has resulted from the prolonged economic downturn.

But the program also is a bulwark against society cruelly turning a blind eye to those most in need. Medicaid is a declaration that healthcare in the United States is not limited solely to those fortunate enough to have well-compensating jobs or fat bank accounts.

Medicaid and its sister program, Medicare, were signed into law in 1965 by then-PresidentLyndon B. Johnson. The first enrollee was former President Harry Truman, who had declared 17 years earlier that "this great nation cannot afford to allow its citizens to suffer needlessly from the lack of proper medical care."

Nowadays — well, you know the story. About 50 million people in the U.S. lack health insurance, yet we still spend more on healthcare per person than any other developed country.

As the baby boomers advance in years, Medicaid and Medicare will account for a greater percentage of the country's budget woes. Changes need to be made, such as raising the eligibility age for Medicare or increasing tax revenue to fund the programs.

But cutting access to Medicaid for many low-income people, as the Republicans are proposing, isn't just horribly shortsighted — would they prefer people turning instead to emergency rooms? — it's an act of meanness unbecoming of the party of supposed family values.

"If they have a better idea for treating low-income people, let them pony up," said Lynn Kersey, executive director of Maternal and Child Health Access, a nonprofit group in L.A. that focuses on obtaining healthcare for families in need.

"There are not enough employers providing healthcare," she said. "There needs to be a safety net."

Paul Castro, chief executive of Jewish Family Service, an L.A. nonprofit that assists the needy, said Medicaid represents the difference between people receiving access to medical treatment and people being left out in the cold.

"Without Medicaid," he said, "we'd see levels of poverty in this country we can't even imagine."

Medicaid isn't just another budget item, such as the nearly $80 billion the Air Force has spent so far developing a new fighter jet, or the almost $600 billion that the Navy will spend on warships over the next 30 years.

Medicaid is people. It's a fair chance.

It's a healthy little baby now residing in Paulina and Jose Cifuentez's home.

Republicans might want to keep that image in mind before they take out their budget axes.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. See him daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and follow him on Twitter: @LATlazarus. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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