GUEST OPINION: Wyoming Plays Politics with Healthcare

By on February 23, 2016

How Medicaid expansion has shifted from a no-brainer to a head-scratcher.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Let it be known that I’m not a fan of Obamacare. But the majority of Americans (including me) believe that people have a fundamental right to healthcare. It’s 2016, America is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and creating a system that continues to rely on healthcare insurers—whose sole reason for existence is to discriminate on the basis of health—is clearly not the answer. We should be providing all of our citizens decent healthcare. Period.

Instead, we are pushing people into a complex system that’s easily gamed and requires them to make predictions about their future health that assumes they have knowledge even the best doctor doesn’t. It’s not a program that’s designed to provide them healthcare; it’s designed to guarantee them access to a health insurance system whose main motive is to make money. Patients are treated as profit centers, and in that sort of system, providing actual heath care is pretty far down the list of priorities.

Having said that, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the law of the land. It’s the system we have (until we replace it with something better), and despite its many flaws, one of the features of that law is Medicaid expansion. It means Americans (including Wyomingites) are going to pay 90 percent of that coverage through federal taxes no matter what, and it will provide healthcare for 20,000 of this state’s most vulnerable citizens.

Think about that again. Ninety percent of the cost of the program is going to be paid through federal taxes (which we will pay anyway) and it will provide healthcare for 20,000 people at 10 cents on the dollar. These are people who are currently choosing to skip preventative care, only to wait until they’re sick enough to go to an emergency room where we will have to pay for them anyway—on top of the federal taxes we already pay to have covered them in the first place. The only thing we have to do to get these people covered is to say yes.

Can you think of a more no-brainer decision? What kind of politician would be (fill in the blank) enough to turn that deal down?

Well, 19 of 30 Wyoming state senators did exactly that this month. And one of them was our own Leland Christensen, R-Alta. Even after Wyoming Governor Matt Mead shifted his stance last year and is now pushing for Medicaid expansion in Wyoming.

At a time when local governments are facing funding cuts for much-needed programs (the Teton Literacy Center, for example, is losing a third of its funding), Christensen is rejecting sorely-needed funding that would help alleviate the budget crisis, all because of Obama. Accepting the money would have saved the state $33.4 million over the next two years—money that could have gone to cover other much-needed programs.

Instead of solutions, Christensen offers Republican talking points and says we should provide healthcare for the poor “the Wyoming way.” So far, that solution appears to consist of denying them federal funding for healthcare.

This might seem inexplicable to local voters, to whom Christensen seems to be a pleasant, reasonably intelligent person. But I’m guessing there’s another reason; one he probably doesn’t want to talk about. Christensen is running for U.S. Congress, so instead of considering the wants and needs of his constituents in Teton and Fremont counties, he’s pandering to voters in the rest of the state. It’s a fine political strategy if politics are more important than people. If the goal is to embarrass the President by sabotaging a healthcare system that’s keeping some of us alive, then it’s a great plan. For those of us who care more about keeping Wyomingites healthy than for Christensen’s federal political career, it’s an unmitigated disaster.

I’m bracing for the hate mail I’m sure I’ll receive over this column. I’ve met Christensen a couple times. He’s a pleasant, well-liked man and I have no doubt even people who disagree with his position might feel that this is a harsh and unnecessarily personal critique.

But Christensen, like other Wyoming legislators who voted no, has asked to be chosen to make these decisions. He’s spent most of his life working for the government, receiving government-provided healthcare, and when he votes to deny even basic healthcare to the less fortunate in an obvious bid to boost his chances of getting to D.C., he’s making a public choice that affects real people. That’s not something we can or should ignore because he is a nice guy.

If Christensen is unable to represent his constituents because he’s got an itch for Beltway politics, he should resign his seat today. The last thing we need is another politician willing to throw the most vulnerable among us under the bus in order to further his political dreams. PJH

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