Why Medicaid Matters

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicaid and Medicare into law.

At the signing ceremony, he spoke of the tradition of leadership that compelled the country to create such programs. He also spoke of another tradition, one embedded in our national identity and values. He said this value “calls upon us never to be indifferent toward despair. It commands us never to turn away from helplessness. It directs us never to ignore or to spurn those who suffer untended in a land that is bursting with abundance.”

Unfortunately, the recent actions of many Members of Congress fly in the face of this tradition.

The House Republican 2012 budget proposal will dismantle Medicaid and Medicare through cuts and restructuring so massive that the programs as we know them will be obliterated. These public health insurance programs are central to this nation’s safety net and are literally a lifeline to millions of people in America. But, the mantra of the day is “deficit reduction at all costs,” and apparently House Republicans, unlike President Johnson, believe those costs should be shouldered by children, seniors, and the disabled.

Most of us are aware of the integral role that Medicare plays in the lives of America’s seniors, but not many know much about Medicaid. The public health insurance program covers over 60 million people, including one in three children, eight million people with disabilities and nearly six million low-income seniors. The benefit package is good, and cost sharing is low. And the program is critical to the elimination of racial disparities in health – nearly six in 10 nonelderly people on Medicaid are people of color. Without Medicaid, the number of uninsured people of color in the U.S., which is currently over 26 million, would be much higher. Access to health care contributes more to disparities in health and health care than anything else.

Health reform contains the biggest expansion of Medicaid since its creation. In 2014, around 16 million people will become newly eligible for the program. The total number of people who will ultimately gain coverage through reform is estimated to be 32 million, so Medicaid’s critical role in its success is clear. If Republicans manage to dismantle Medicaid, they will have successfully undermined health reform and its promise of coverage for millions of people in America.

Cutting Medicaid would endanger kids, seniors, and the disabled. Yet, they are being asked to give up their health coverage in order to reduce the deficit. Who isn’t being asked to pay? Big corporations like General Electric.

General Electric had a banner year in 2010. Not only did they manage to avoid paying any taxes at all, they actually claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion. That amount of money would have paid for Medicaid for close to one million children in that same year.  All told, corporations such as General Electric, Bank of America, and ExxonMobil avoid paying up to $100 billion in taxes each year. That is equivalent to the amount of money House Republicans propose to cut from Medicaid each year.

Representative Paul Ryan, the architect of the plan to strip children and seniors of their health care, has a different moral vision from President Johnson’s. We must recognize, Ryan says,  ” that our nation’s debt problem isn’t just a fiscal challenge involving dollars and cents. It’s a moral challenge involving questions of principle and purpose. The size of the budget is a symptom of deeper causes, and it points to different ideas about government.”

Maybe Ryan’s moral vision is just about ideas – or ideology. President Johnson challenged us to think about real people’s lives.

He said, “Few can see past the speeches and the political battles to the doctor over there that is tending the infirm, and to the hospital that is receiving those in anguish, or feel in their heart painful wrath at the injustice which denies the miracle of healing to the old and to the poor. And fewer still have the courage to stake reputation, and position, and the effort of a lifetime upon such a cause when there are so few that share it.”

Hopefully, the Senate will have the vision and courage to stand up to bullies in the House who are willing to sacrifice the lives of seniors and children on the altar of deficit reduction, while letting corporate giants like GE and Bank of America pay nothing toward the common good.

Photo of  LBJ signing Medicare into law courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum.

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