February 23, 2019

Messing with Medicaid is a bad idea

Back in May of 2013, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made the decision to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income families earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

By that one act, I think he did more to relieve unnecessary human suffering than any number of his predecessors. Maybe more than all of them put together.

Medicaid expansion was an option under the Affordable Care Act. It was originally intended to apply to all states, but this provision was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2012. Since then, it has become a state option.

That decision has been a lifesaver and a game changer for tens of thousands of West Virginians. As of Feb. 19, 158,137 West Virginians are enrolled in Medicaid expansion. That’s a little shy of one out of 10 state residents, but not by much. In any given year, around 200,000 people have received coverage due to Medicaid expansion.

Most people who gained health coverage came from working families not otherwise eligible for traditional Medicaid.

A lot of the credit for that goes to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, which did an amazing job of reaching out to and enrolling eligible citizens.

I’m not sure how much this weighed on Gov. Tomblin’s decision at the time, but the expansion opened the gates of treatment for addiction and, ultimately, recovery for thousands of West Virginians struck by the opioid epidemic.

In the words of Nan Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio, a city that has made great progress in reducing overdose deaths, “If you’re a state that does not have Medicaid expansion, you can’t build a system for addressing this disease.”

Not only did West Virginia do something right, but it did it well. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there’s a move in the Legislature to impose a policy that has failed elsewhere. The House Finance Committee recently voted to impose on West Virginia a policy that has caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering in Arkansas.

The failed policy sounds good, at a superficial level: Let’s impose work requirements on those who receive expanded Medicaid coverage.

I’ve used this Bible verse more than once, but it still fits: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”

Instead of promoting work, it increases bureaucratic costs and reporting requirements and results in cutting people off for no good reason.

By August 2018, over 18,000 enrollees out of 62,000 — nearly one out of three — in the Arkansas program had been cut off. There’s no evidence whatsoever that those people are doing more work, but it’s a safe bet that they are worse off.

Closer to home, Kentucky has applied for a waiver to impose a similar but more draconian work requirement on its Medicaid population. According to the research of Simon Haeder of West Virginia University’s Rockefeller School of Policy and Politics, if West Virginia would follow suit, this would impact 95,000 West Virginians, including those who are unemployed or who are working but can’t get enough hours to meet the requirement.

Even if we just assume that West Virginia’s results would be similar to those in Arkansas, we would see over 46,000 people losing coverage. That would be about the same as the entire population of Huntington or Charleston — or of Pocahontas, Doddridge, Calhoun, Pleasants, Pendleton, Tucker and Wirt counties combined.

Apparently, some people didn’t get the memo that having health care isn’t a barrier to employment, it actually helps you stay in the game. I know plenty of people, myself included, who are working and paying taxes today but would probably have been disabled or dead without health care.

For that matter, cutting people off from Medicaid doesn’t just hurt those individuals, it also affects local hospitals and health care providers, reduces money coming to local communities and can have a negative effect on employment. And it drives up health care costs for everyone else by increasing emergency room visits and uncompensated care.

The main support for this seems to come from the same kind of outsider-funded astroturf groups that gave us education “reform.” Last year, one of these types of bills succeeded, resulting in new state code that took basic food assistance away from homeless people.

It’s sad to say, but some people in power evidently derive some kind of weird gratification by imposing misery on those less powerful.

Somehow, however, I don’t think most West Virginians are into that kind of thing.

I hope the majority of West Virginia legislators ultimately agree.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

February 21, 2019

What just happened with the 2019 WV education strike, anyway?

West Virginia teachers and school service workers just won another historic victory with their two-day walkout to kill Senate Bill 451, the "ominous omnibus" bill.

If I had to explain what has happened over the last few weeks to an intelligent person from somewhere else relying on memory alone, it would go something like this. Please jump in and correct me where I'm wrong. (Sneak preview: Putnam County bus drivers are heroes!):

1. WV education workers won an historic victory with their work stoppage last year and some people on the losing end (fill in the blanks) never forgave them for that.

2. This session, those same people ambushed the senate with radical ideas about education "deform," which included privatization, charter schools, educational savings accounts, punishments for union workers and such along with benign measures like a 5 percent raise and help with PEIA and retirement. The bad ideas were pushed by out of state big money groups like ALEC and others who want to take down public education.

3. Education workers and allies began to mobilize against this and to come up with alternative ideas.

4. Gov. Justice, to his credit, came  out against the senate bill, admitting it was partly motivated by revenge and pledging to veto it in its current form. Alas, the framers of WV's constitution apparently dozed off at some point and made it possible to override a governor's veto with a simple majority.

5.  The bill was rammed down the metaphorical throat of the senate education committee. And, when it looked like the bill wouldn't make it through the senate finance committee (thanks to the defection of two Republicans), leadership went around it to adopt a rarely used "committee of the whole" to get it through the senate. (Some of us thought of it as a "committee of the hole.")

5. Education workers voted to authorize a work stoppage if and when it seemed like the right thing to do to oppose 451.

6. SB 451 went to the house, which came up with an imperfect but significantly less evil version of the bill.

7. The senate refused to go with the house version and reloaded it with charters, educational savings accounts and other privatization measures.

8. At that point, education workers and their organizations called for a work stoppage which shut down schools in 54 of 55 counties, the outlier being Putnam.

9. Putnam bus drivers, service workers and many teachers heroically defied their bosses to hold the line, even though they may still face sanctions. All honor to them!

10. After one day of striking, the house refused to concur with the senate version, which seemed to kill the bad bill. There was much rejoicing, but nobody trusted the senate, so the strike continued for another day.

11. By day two of the strike, the deadline for reviving 451 passed. On the evening of day two, a return to work was declared by AFT, WVEA and WVSSPA.

12. All of which is to say, this was a truly historic victory! Of course, we can still expect dirty tricks and bad bills in the remaining days of the session. And we as in education workers and families and their allies need to get in front of this and come up with a real plan to improve education with all WV students...in a way that freezes out privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and educational saving accounts and such.

13. But let's face it, y'all. WV just won another historic and inspiring victory for the labor movement and for kids and for working people. Last year's victory continues to inspire teachers and other workers (keep an eye on Oakland CA for the latest example). May this year's victory inspire more of the same.

February 20, 2019

55 still strong

"Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a union"

February 18, 2019

The die is cast-roll em!

"Alea iacta est!" or, in English, "the die is cast" as in the dice have been rolled. So said Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon on his way to a date with history. It looks like West Virginia has another date with labor history and the dice have been rolled..

As WV senate Republicans seem determined to ram down an agenda of privatization, charter schools, and "education savings vouchers" down the throat of an unwilling state, WV teachers and school support workers have called a strike starting tomorrow (Tuesday, Feb. 19).  At this writing several counties have already closed schools. More are no doubt to come.

Nobody wanted this fight (aside from out of state AstroTurf groups funded by oligarchs) but all that matters now is solidarity.

Game the **** on-solidarity forever!