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Divided Senate backs changes in Medicaid law

Two Republicans join Democrats in voting against program cuts.
Friday, March 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:48 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Senators on Thursday invoked Christian values and compared welfare programs to putting American Indians on reservations in a final debate before passing a bill to reduce the Medicaid program.

The legislation, which legislative staffers estimate would remove about 50,000 people from the program’s rolls, was approved 20-11. Two Republicans — Kevin Engler of Farmington and Robert Mayer of Dexter — voted against the bill. No Democrats supported the proposal; one Democratic senator was not present for the vote.

In the last debate before the legislature’s spring break, Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, questioned the Christian values of the bill’s proponents. “I say, ‘How you can claim that you’re a child of God, a Christian on this earth, a person who’s here for others, and yet you take away from people who least deserve it?” she said.

But Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, compared social welfare programs to the relegation of American Indians to reservations. “We’ve taken this reservation system, put it into every city in America and gotten the same result: drugs, violence, alcoholism and no father in the home,” Purgason said.

Medicaid, the state’s largest welfare program with almost

1 million participants, is jointly funded by the state and federal governments. It pays the health care costs of the disabled, low-income and elderly.

The program swelled throughout the 1990s, and its cost has increased to $4.8 billion and more than 28 percent of the state’s budget.

Throughout much of the debate, Democratic comments ranged from hinting to saying outright that Republican proponents were being hardhearted to the poor.

Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Franklin, said those comments hit close to home for him. He was raised by his grandmother, and he said although she might have been eligible for Medicaid had the program existed at the time, she never would have accepted the help.

“There are very few people here who have walked the shoes that I have,” Griesheimer said. “I would never, ever vote for a bill that would hurt people like her — I couldn’t do that.”

An amendment to the bill would end the entire program in 2008, which Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-St. Louis County, said was necessary to spur the state to change the system to eliminate the people abusing it.

“We never heard any comments throughout this entire debate that this system is good,” he said. “This system, I think by all accounts, is a complete, unmitigated failure.”

However, Senate Democrats said there should be another program in place before eliminating Medicaid.

Coleman said it was unfair to cut the entire program, as a thorough examination of the system would allow the state to remove only the ineligible people. “If you have a problem with employees, you don’t fire everyone in the building,” she said. “You find the specific people who are doing wrong, and you fire them. You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

The House must act on the bill next. House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said the Medicaid bill would be the next major issue to hit the House floor.


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