UPDATE: Protesters interrupt Missouri Senate Medicaid debate; 23 arrested

Tuesday, May 6, 2014 | 9:08 p.m. CDT; updated 7:35 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Two Capitol Police officers approach clergy members in an attempt to remove them from Missouri's Senate gallery on Tuesday. From left, the Rev. John Bennett, the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield Sr. and the Rev. Samuel Mann had their arms locked, accompanied by Bishop Fred Caldwell, during a protest of lawmakers' refusal to expand Medicaid. They were the last four who refused to leave. Twenty-three people were arrested.

This article has been updated to include a photo, quotes and additional information and corrected to accurately reflect the warrant search.

JEFFERSON CITY —  More than 20 people were arrested Tuesday after demonstrators briefly interrupted the debate in the Missouri Senate to protest lawmakers' refusal to accept federal dollars to expand the state's Medicaid program.

A few hundred clergy and other protesters with the Missouri Medicaid Coalition filled the public galleries, chanted and sang hymns. The disruption led Senate Republican leaders to halt work for about an hour as Capitol Police worked to clear the galleries.

A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, Mike O'Connell, said 23 demonstrators were arrested on trespassing allegations after refusing to leave the gallery when asked by Capitol Police. They were checked for active* warrants but were not handcuffed or taken into custody. It is up to the Cole County prosecutor to determine whether charges will be filed.

O'Connell added that everyone at the demonstration was peaceful and there were "no problems, whatsoever."

The protesters chanted "bring dignity" and "don't block expansion" as senators were discussing legislation that wasn't Medicaid-related. The Rev. Cassandra Gould of Quinn Chapel MAE in Jefferson City said she joined fellow clergy members to protest the Legislature's inaction when it comes to expanding Medicaid.

"It is disappointing and disgusting. If they won't talk about it, we will," she said. "It is immoral, and people are dying."

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said there is a knee-jerk reaction to ignore the demonstration because the Senate doesn't want to condone that behavior.

"We deal with very serious and sometimes contentious issues that stir people's passion," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't think disrupting the Senate from conducting its business is a good tactic."

Missouri Republicans have repeatedly rejected expanding Medicaid eligibility under the terms of President Barack Obama's health care law. States that expand adult Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of the poverty level — about $27,000 annually for a family of three — can initially receive full federal funding for those added to the rolls. That federal aid is then gradually reduced to a 90 percent share, with states picking up the rest.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who has advocated for expanding the program for low-income adults, estimates that 300,000 people would gain coverage. Republicans have raised concerns about the long-term costs, especially if the federal government reneges on its funding promises.

The Republican-led legislature is unlikely to seriously consider Medicaid expansion as time runs out on this year's session and lawmakers face a May 16 mandatory adjournment.

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