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Hundreds rally in the rotunda to restore Medicaid cuts

February 14, 2006
By: Jason Rosenbaum
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB539

JEFFERSON CITY - For Raymond Conyers, Medicaid keeps him and his family from making difficult choices between the medicine he needs and basic necessities.

"A lot of the medicines that I take are like 95 percent of what I draw," Conyers said. "So therefore, I either do without my medicine or I do without food or a place to live. When your medicine is costing more than what you're drawing, it's pretty bad."

While Medicaid is a priority in his life, he said he doesn't feel it's one in the Capitol.

"We build roads and stuff like that," he said. "Why can't we take care of the elderly and the disabled? It don't make sense to me."

Conyers, 43, of Cuba, Mo., came to the Capitol rotunda Tuesday, along with union members, Democratic legislators, clergy members, grass roots activists and Attorney General Jay Nixon to criticize last year's Medicaid cuts.

Much of the ire at the rally was channeled against a bill crafted last year by Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, which, among other changes to the system, "reduces the medical assistance for the working disabled (MAWD) and general relief medical assistance programs."

The cuts to the Medicaid system last year caused nearly 94,000 Missourians to lose coverage.

Speakers and rally organizers called for the bill's repeal, and lambasted Blunt and state legislators for lowering the income limit and eliminating funding for "optional" medical supplies.

"Dental, eyeglasses, physical therapy, durable medical equipment -- we have to go out and beg for it," said Rich Blakley, executive director of Disabled Citizens Alliance for Independence.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said eliminating the funding for supplies promotes wasteful spending. He presented an anecdote of a person who needed a new battery for their wheelchair to prove his point.

"They said 'we won't do that, but we'll buy you a new power wheelchair,'" Graham said. "Where's the state saving money on that?"

Flanked from all sides by hand-drawn signs trumpeting his 2008 gubernatorial run, Nixon chastised the governor for "misleading" Missourians about his plans for Medicaid funding.

"We were told that this governor would not be the kind of Republican who would cut Medicaid, he would instead work to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse," Nixon said. "But that is not what has happened, is it? From his first step, he has cut health care for those in the greatest need."

Nixon said the government should not be giving out a handout, but they shouldn't be kicking a person when they're down.

"Our goal is to give people a hands up," Nixon said. "Cuts to MAWD and the Welfare to Work program push our state in the wrong direction."

But Republicans said the changes to Medicaid were necessary in order to balance the budget.

Purgason said Medicaid group would have gone up by as much as $200 million if his bill hadn't been passed by the legislature and signed by the governor last year.

"So, we would have to come up with the funding, if that bill was reinstated, approximately $150 to $200 million," Purgason said. "And I'm not sure where that funding would come from."

Jessica Robinson, spokes person for Blunt, said it would have been "heartless" to let the "old, fraud-laden" system go on unabated and fail to protect the system for those who need it most.

"If changes had not been made, it would have consumed the entire budget, and that would have strangled funds for educations, for roads, for public safety," Robinson said. "It would have been a program the state could simply not afford."

She said it is disappointing, even a year later, that critics of much needed reform have not presented their own plan on how they intend to address challenges.

"The bottom line is if they want to raise taxes, they need to say who they want to raise taxes on and by how much," she said. "And if they want to cut other parts of the budget, they need to say by how much and where."