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Expanding Medicaid in Alaska will require vocal voters

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Loren Holmes photo

OPINION: When I was growing up, we didn't have a lot of money. Lots of people say that, but in this case, it was true. My folks were subsistence farmers who preferred to do for themselves rather than be indebted to anyone, and if that meant going without luxuries, and sometimes even necessities, that was just how it was.

I don't kid myself into thinking that I'm alone in that story. Lots of people I have known over the years have similar stories to tell, and plenty of friends I know now struggle to make it work. Alaska can be a hard place to do that. People do without all around me. And during the past few years, I certainly have, too.

But there's one big difference between my situation and the one my parents faced.

One day when I was 10, I fell on the ice while skating and my friend skated into my head, slicing a big gash above my left eyebrow. On the way to the hospital, I peeked at my wound and saw my own skull. Scary. But what was not scary was figuring out how to pay for the dozens of stitches I needed to put my scalp back in its rightful place, or the X-ray to ensure I hadn't literally cracked my head open. That's because I grew up in Canada.

Last winter, I twisted my ankle badly. As I tried to deal with the pain, and watched the swelling rise on my foot, I had one thought going through my head. I knew I could not afford to have it looked at. If it was broken, I would have had to choose between getting the medical coverage I needed and paying my mortgage.

America is a place of proud people. But nowhere else is the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots so clear as in the hospital. When people have to suffer because the costs have risen so high that it is completely unaffordable for all but those lucky enough to have health insurance, the system is irreparably broken. And when fear of lawsuits and liability infringes on the ability of health care workers to treat people, it's even more distressing. My cowboy friend, the kind of guy who only seeks help when he absolutely must, recently walked into some sort of sharp object or other and skewered himself in the upper nose. He went to the local clinic and they told him he had to go to the hospital and get an MRI to be treated. The price tag on that little photo shoot was way out of his range, and he asked if he could just get some antibiotics. Nope, the clinic said. And before you go judging them, their fears came from a world where liability rules and human care comes a distant second at best.

This is not going to be an easy problem to fix. Last week, for the first time in the 20 years since I've been here, I heard people hopeful that some day soon, they might be able to afford health care. I don't think most people want a free ride, but when a half-hour trip to the ER can set you back weeks if not months, something must be done to right the ship.

This week, Gov. Sean Parnell said that he was considering opting out of expanding Medicaid, undermining the current effort to expand health insurance. When the Supreme Court considered whether to uphold health reform, it also ruled that the federal government couldn't force states to participate by withholding Medicaid funding if they didn't go along with the expansion of the program. So now, Alaska lawmakers have the option to make the call. And Parnell's record on this issue is decidedly opposed.

According to the National Patient Advocate Foundation, nearly 130,000 Alaskans — adults and children — are uninsured. And many more likely have catastrophic coverage, since the monthly cost for the insurance Parnell and other lawmakers enjoy - the kind that allows you to go to the doctor when you are sick without emptying your savings account first — is well over $1,000 per month, even if you have no pre-existing conditions.

How is that population going to be heard and treated fairly by Parnell and the rest of the state, many of whom probably have never had to make the life-and-death sort of choices the uninsured face every time there's a twist in the road? The only way is if people recognize that health care is a human right, not a privilege, in a society that prides itself on being one of the greatest in the world. How we care for each other is the cornerstone of what makes a society work. A resounding chorus of support will likely be needed to encourage Alaska lawmakers to stand up for expanded health care. Start tuning up your voices now.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission. Contact Carey Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com