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Expand Medicaid for the sake of people like Christine Zeigra

May 28, 2013
Arizona Capitol Times
Guest Opinion

Arizona’s option to restore and expand Medicaid has been hotly debated for months, with most of the conversation revolving around dollars and cents, or politics and bureaucracy. Sadly, the Arizonans who need action from our lawmakers are the people whose voices are rarely heard.

Christine Zeigra was born with spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spine that has left her with a severe disability. In 1986, at the age of 14, Christine endured a leg amputation, followed later that year by a traumatic brain injury.

Despite significant disabilities, Christine spent 21 years fully employed, most of them working for a major national bank. She continued to work until June 2010, when she lost her job, and ultimately lost her health coverage. After doing her part and paying taxes without complaint for two decades, the system has failed her.

Christine doesn’t qualify for AHCCCS coverage, Arizona’s Medicaid health insurance program. Often, she becomes very sick with severe pain, but Christine can’t afford to see the doctor. “It hurts so bad, but there’s nothing I can do.” Christine says. “I pray every night that I’m not going to die.”

An Arizonan who paid into the system for 21 years is left to pray for survival? That’s an outrage.

It’s not a question of whether we can afford to adopt Gov. Jan Brewer’s plan to expand Medicaid, but whether we can afford not to.

Beyond our obligation to care for people like Christine, who would qualify under the expansion plan, is an obligation to build and maintain a sustainable system.

When people don’t have coverage — as is the case for one in every five Arizonans — their care costs do not go away. The health care system that all of Arizona relies upon is severely strained by the costs and complications of people who don’t have coverage — people who ultimately receive delayed and costly care. The threats to our economy, health care system, and people are serious. Medicaid expansion is part of the solution.

In reality, without Medicaid expansion, all Arizonans face a “hidden tax.” The current hidden tax of $1,700 per year that Arizonans pay for their insurance coverage is driven by the impact of uncompensated care. Stopping the rising tide of uncompensated care will relieve the pressure to rapidly increase insurance premiums.

It’s also important to remember that Arizonans in all counties decidedly approved Medicaid expansions in 1996. Recent polling by multiple bipartisan organizations confirms that Arizonans are still on board. Christine Zeigra is one of those Arizonans.

For the sake of people like Christine, who did their part and consistently paid into the system, we call upon state lawmakers to approve the governor’s proposal. We can’t afford to wait any longer.

The cost of inaction — and the human toll — is simply too high.

— Fred Karnas is the CEO of St. Luke’s Health Initiatives.

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