Two weeks ago, the North Carolina General Assembly returned to Raleigh for what was supposed to be a special session on health care. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the lack of health coverage that is hurting our working families and advancing solutions that will help our rural hospitals, legislative leaders instead focused (unsuccessfully) on overriding Governor Cooper’s seven-month-old budget veto.
The failure of our lawmakers to create a solution to close the coverage gap, is simply unacceptable.
What always seems to get lost in the shuffle of these political games are the stories of the people across North Carolina who are suffering unnecessarily because of our state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. As someone who has met and listened to people in the health coverage gap, I feel compelled to elevate a few of their stories to show what not expanding Medicaid looks like in real life.
First, it is important to understand that most of the North Carolina residents who are uninsured form the backbone of our economy, working in retail, construction, food service, and for small businesses that cannot afford to offer health benefits. They are hardworking people forced to forego necessary medical treatment due to cost or end up deeply in debt for getting the care they need when they get sick or have an accident.
Diane, a truck driver in Rockingham County, struggled to manage her diabetes when she lost her insurance and her job. Her health deteriorated without coverage and she suffered three major heart attacks. She is now in crippling debt.
She told me, “I want to work, I’ve always worked, but now I’m just too sick.” Not expanding Medicaid has robbed Diane of her health, livelihood, savings, and ability to engage in her community.
Without health insurance, easily treatable and preventable illnesses worsen, become more costly to treat and threaten permanent disability and chronic pain.
Expanding Medicaid is also important for connecting people to treatment and care for substance use disorders, a health concern affecting all corners of our state.
Ricky is a loving father of five from Halifax County who suffers from a rare and painful genetic condition called spinal stenosis. After losing Medicaid coverage, he turned to illicit drugs to alleviate the pain. Like many unable to access health care, he was incarcerated and is now working to get his life back together.
However, Ricky’s job as an industrial electrician takes a major toll on his body, and he remains uninsured. He told me, “It is ironic that I am wiring up state of the art operating rooms that I will never be able to use, even though I need several surgeries right now.”
Why are we abandoning hardworking North Carolinians when they need us the most?
Tragically, Jessica is another example of what happens when people cannot get the help they need. Her mom, Robin, a nurse in Alamance County, tearfully told me about her oldest child.
“My daughter Jessica was sweet, funny, and kind. She was also a rape survivor who suffered from depression, anxiety, and PTSD, who self-medicated with drugs and became addicted. She died on May 12, 2018 of an accidental overdose.” Jessica wanted to get help but was ineligible for Medicaid and could not afford treatment.
How many people do we have to lose until lawmakers do the right thing?
Policy decisions in Raleigh have an impact on people across our state. While the General Assembly plays political games and rejects billions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid, our friends, neighbors, and families are experiencing suffering, financial distress, and in some cases, the death of a loved one. Why are we allowing them to suffer when there is a solution at our fingertips?
Too many of our elected officials are clearly not interested in addressing the needs of their constituents. This election year we can use our vote to send a strong message that inaction on expanding Medicaid is no longer acceptable. Health care voters will see you at the ballot box!
Rebecca Cerese is an Engagement Coordinator with the Health Advocacy Project at the NC Justice Center in Raleigh.