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Southerners to States: Expand Medicaid to Stop Deaths, Racial Health Disparities
Stacey Abrams, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II Join Coalition’s Online Vigil
As the U.S. just reached the somber milestone of 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, a group of Southerners wants to make something clear to lawmakers: expanding Medicaid would be the single fastest way to address the region’s devastating racial health disparities related to the pandemic.
Of the twelve states yet to expand Medicaid, eight are in the South. Roughly seven million Southerners would be covered through Medicaid expansion, many of whom are essential workers and are people of color. The pandemic has exacted a staggering toll on Black and Latinx Southerners who are more likely to be uninsured workers on the pandemic’s frontlines and who continue to be overrepresented in COVID-19 infections and deaths. Tragically, the South’s infant mortality rates are also the highest in the nation, as are cancer death rates.
A newly formed coalition of advocates from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—Southerners for Medicaid Expansion— has come together to fight for Medicaid expansion in these eight states.
“Tens of thousands of people have died in the South—my home—because they couldn’t afford to get the healthcare they needed. Especially during COVID-19, our lawmakers must address the healthcare crisis,” says coalition member Jane Adams, Campaign Director at Cover Alabama. “The fight for Medicaid expansion in the South is also the fight against the legacy of slavery and racial injustice.”
To honor the lives of people who have suffered from being uninsured and unable to get the healthcare they need, Southerners for Medicaid Expansion will hold an online vigil on October 1st. Stacey Abrams will moderate, and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II will be the keynote speaker. The vigil will include a naming ceremony of loved ones who died because they could not get the help they needed, and “roll call” videos that will provide insight into ways lack of expansion has impacted each of the eight states.
The coalition’s work highlights how, even before the pandemic, Southerners are more likely to be uninsured than any other region in the U.S., and are more likely to report having poorer health than their neighbors in the Midwest or the North. The lack of healthcare options has worsened the HIV epidemic, and magnified already staggering poverty.
Expanding Medicaid would also boost local economies and minimize the rural and urban gap in access to health care, which would likely improve the harm of this economic downturn on communities. “By refusing to expand Medicaid, our lawmakers are abandoning millions who make up the backbone of our communities,” says Laura Guerra-Cardus, Deputy Director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. “They’re people caring for our children, students keeping our grocery stores stocked, and young adults building up their lives. Our leaders can take action to make sure they have access to health insurance and peace of mind.”
Polls show Medicaid expansion is popular, and every time it has been on the ballot in other states, it has passed. “Our goal is to increase the number of people who understand what it means to expand Medicaid,” says coalition member Kinika Young, Senior Director of Health Policy and Advocacy at Tennessee Justice Center. “When people understand it, and especially when they understand the link between the lack of access to health care and high rates of maternal and infant mortality, they become advocates for expansion. We want healthcare for people, so more parents can celebrate their child’s first birthday.”
Take, for example, a non-disabled single mom in North Carolina who works full-time at minimum wage earns $290 a week—before taxes. Her income puts her squarely in the “Medicaid gap,” meaning she makes too much for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for a subsidy through the healthcare marketplace. Her child would have access to Medicaid, but she would not. To get even the most basic coverage, she would have to pay full price or roughly a quarter of her yearly salary.
“When people see how impossible this is, they are completely shocked,” says Adams.
In the eight Southern states that have yet to expand Medicaid, nearly 50 rural hospitals have shuttered their doors since 2014. The path to Medicaid expansion differs in each state, with some states allowing for ballot initiatives, while others require legislative action. Coalition members are community leaders, advocates, policy experts, and healthcare professionals across the South, aligned in the urgency—and achievability—of expansion during this pandemic.
“Voters in most other states, regardless of their political party, have all said ‘yes’ to expansion,” says Young. “This is going to happen in the South, and we can be part of it together. We have the critical mass now that can no longer be ignored.”
After the vigil, individual stories videos from each of the eight states will be available. Available for interview: Rebecca Cerese, Health Engagement Coordinator, NC Justice Center and Co-organizer of Southerners for Medicaid Expansion Coalition; Charlene H. Collier, M.D., University of Mississippi Medical Center; and Joe Weissfeld, Director of Medicaid Initiatives, Families USA. To request videos, receive state-specific data, or connect with vigil organizers, contact Claudette Silver at (828) 318-3233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.