June 13, 2011- Rockefeller Speaks Out on Medicaid

By: Michael Hyland
By: Michael Hyland

WV Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) took to the Senate floor in an effort to steer the political conversation in Washington back toward Medicaid.

Much of the focus in Washington in recent weeks has been on budget plans drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and their effects on Medicare and other entitlements. Though he doesn't use this phrasing, Ryan's Medicare proposal would effectively turn it into a voucher program with subsidies.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) took to the Senate floor in an effort to bring the conversation back to Medicaid. Under the Ryan plan, Medicaid would function more like a block grant system where the federal government sends money to the states, giving them more control.

Here is the full text of Rockefeller's floor speech:

"In 1964, President Johnson envisioned an America that “rests on abundance and liberty for all.”  It was against LBJ’s backdrop of a Great Society that we reignited a tradition of community and mutual obligation that, if not uniquely, is at least characteristically American.  Programs like VISTA, Peace Corps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were born.
Sadly, nearly 50 years after LBJ’s War on Poverty, we have witnessed vicious attempts to roll back government programs designed to give low-income Americans a hand-up in life – all in the name of deficit reduction. 
There is no question that we must reduce our deficit, but we should not do so on the backs of working families still struggling under the weight of this recession.  Yet, bill after bill proposed by Republicans seeks to do just that.
The House Republicans’ H.R. 1 was a direct attack on America’s working families and the successful education, job training, and community development programs designed to combat poverty. 
And, the Republican budget proposal for next year goes even further and attacks Medicare and Medicaid – the health care programs that over 100 million people rely on.  At a critical moment in our economic recovery, Republicans are more focused on settling old scores from health care reform than they are on creating jobs. 
Mr. President, the Republican plan for getting our deficit under control amounts to upside-down government.  Instead of helping those who depend on government programs to support their families, the Republican plan would guarantee that millionaires, billionaires and large corporations continue to receive trillions of dollars in government subsidies – subsidies that will grow exponentially over time and substantially increase our deficit.
So, Republicans aren’t for a fair or balanced approach to deficit reduction. What they are for is a government that only exists to support big businesses and wealthy Americans – a perpetual TARP for their cronies. Well, I reject that notion and the American people do too.
In my estimation, there is no government program that more fully embodies our nation’s tradition of community and mutual obligation than Medicaid.
After almost 50 years, Medicaid is still a life-saving part of what we do as a government. 
Medicaid provides an essential lifeline to families during difficult economic times when people lose jobs that provided them with health insurance. 
Medicaid is the health care program that helps states during crises – including after the September 11th attacks, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the recent floods and tornados in the South and Midwest. 
Medicaid is part of the fabric of our great nation – and the people covered by Medicaid matter.  People like Darren from Princeton, West Virginia who wrote the following:
“I am a disabled West Virginian whose family relies on Medicare and Medicaid. I hope and pray that these health programs won't be ended or totally changed. Please do not support Republican changes to these programs as a way of cutting cost to the taxpayer. The poor of West Virginia should not and cannot bear the burden of the deficit reduction that Republicans want.”
Members of Congress, seniors and advocates have rightfully rallied in staunch defense of Medicare.  But, aside from the occasional editorial or story, there has been an unsettling silence around Medicaid – even from members of my own party.  This is despite the fact that the five main arguments being made in support of Medicare are also true of Medicaid.
·         The public strongly supports Medicaid too.  Sixty percent of people say they would prefer to keep Medicaid as it is now.  
·         Medicaid also creates jobs.  Every $1 million in federal Medicaid spending results in 17.1 new jobs – at hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers, and doctor’s offices.
·         A Medicaid block grant or spending cap would also reduce benefits and increase cost-sharing for seniors from day one.  Much has been said about a Medicare voucher system, but capping Medicaid spending would be just as bad for the 5.5 million seniors and 11 million individuals with disabilities enrolled in Medicaid.
·         Instead of reducing the deficit, the savings achieved by drastically cutting Medicaid would also be used to pay for more tax breaks for wealthy Americans and large corporations. 
·         Any deep cuts to Medicaid will also undermine the health reform law. Medicaid is the underpinning of the entire coverage expansion in reform, covering half of the 32 million newly insured.
And so I ask my colleagues – Why is Medicaid so often treated like it’s a second-class program – an unwanted burden on our society?
Is it because most of the people enrolled are low-income and many typically don’t vote?  Then I must say to my colleagues that the point of a representative democracy is to serve all, especially the most vulnerable among us.  The 68 million people enrolled in Medicaid deserve a voice in this debate, and I, for one, will speak for them.
Is it because we somehow feel that Medicaid recipients are not worthy – simply because they have fallen on hard times? Then I must ask of my colleagues, how could this be? We all have neighbors, friends and family that benefit from Medicaid. In fact, nearly half of all Americans have a friend or family member that has received Medicaid assistance at some point – and they are absolutely worthy of our support.
Is it because we believe Medicaid spending is truly out of control? Then I would remind my colleagues that Medicaid costs per beneficiary grew much slower over the past decade than costs for private coverage, despite Medicaid’s more comprehensive benefits and significantly lower cost-sharing. 
I fervently believe that the American tradition of shared responsibility – everyone working together for the greater good – is a tradition worth upholding and that government has an ongoing role to play its preservation.
Instead of shortchanging Medicaid, we must have the courage to rein in tax breaks for corporate America and the wealthy.
Medicaid does exactly what it was designed to do all those years ago – provide a safety-net for low-income Americans.  There are lots of worthwhile and positive ways that we can improve the program – but trashing Medicaid for political gain should not be an option.
I thank the Chair."
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