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Allen: Don’t play politics with virus

A local legislator says efforts to use the COVID-19 pandemic to renew a political agenda and push for expanded Medicaid in Alabama are “shameful.”

Health and advocacy groups on Wednesday urged Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and legislators to expand the state’s Medicaid program as the coronavirus outbreak strains health care systems and takes its deadliest toll on people with underlying medical problems.

A group of more than 60 organizations announced a renewed push to try to convince Alabama politicians to expand the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. Alabama is one of 14 states that has not raised income limits to allow more low-income people to qualify for Medicaid.

“Utilizing the Wuhan Virus as a political opportunity to promote a far-left liberal agenda like the expansion of Medicaid is shameful,” said state Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy. “We can see that the states with the highest infection rates and death tolls of the Wuhan Virus are states that expanded Medicaid.

“That is certainly not a ringing endorsement for those who are arguing for expansion.”

Members of the coalition called Cover Alabama said Medicaid expansion would bring health care coverage to more than 200,000 currently uninsured people as well as an influx of federal dollars to the state’s frayed health care system and economy.

“It brings all of the previous arguments for Medicaid expansion to a very pointed single question of: In the face of a health care disaster, is Alabama willing to hold back and remain satisfied with a stressed, frayed hospital network and a system that leaves hundreds of thousands of people out of affordable health coverage,” said Jim Carnes, policy director for Alabama Arise, a member of the coalition. “We say the answer is no and we have thousands who Alabamians to agree.”

Evey Owen, interim coalition director for Cover Alabama, said workers at grocery stores and other essential businesses are at the frontline of the pandemic but also among those likely to lack insurance if they get sick.

“It’s great to applaud the brave Alabamians who are keeping food on our tables and keeping hospitals clean during the crisis, but it would be even better to make sure they can get health coverage,” Owen said.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act allows people making up to 133% of the federal poverty line with family incomes less than 138% of the federal poverty limit— or roughly $17,000 for an individual and $29,000 for a family of three to qualify for Medicaid. Currently, Alabama’s Medicaid program covers very few able-bodied adults.

Republican leaders have expressed opposition to expanding Medicaid, at times citing both political opposition to the Affordable Care Act passed under former President Barack Obama and concerns about cost. While 90% of the cost would be carried by the federal government, the state’s share of expanding Medicaid would be an estimated $250 million a year.

Allen continues to oppose the expansion.

“I have always opposed the expansion, which would cost Alabama taxpayers hundres of millions of dollars with little to no impact on the quality of actual healthcare and that has not changed,” he said.

Ivey has said expanding Medicaid is an option the state may consider, but on Tuesday repeated concerns about paying for the state’s share of the cost. The state’s budget outlook for 2021 has shifted from rosy to dire in the face of the pandemic.

“Certainly we’re concerned about the health and welfare of all of our citizens wherever they may live, but at the same time it would be irresponsible to think about expanding Medicaid just for the sake of expanding Medicaid without having a complete and honest discussion about the source of stable funding to pay the match,” Ivey said during a news conference Tuesday.

Advocates argued that expansion would bring an economic benefit for the state.

A 2019 study by University of Alabama Birmingham professor David Becker estimated that Medicaid expansion would reduce the state’s uninsured population by approximately 223,000 individuals while generating nearly $3 billion in new economic activity annually.

Alabama on Wednesday had more than 4,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and there have been more than 115 reported deaths in COVID-19 patients, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a few weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and even death.

The Associated Press contributed to this report