Strangely enough, the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s does much to prove how comparatively generous Kansas conservatives have been in supporting the medical needs of our state’s poor citizens. Well over a million Irish people starved to death in that famine, many emigrants dying on “ghost ships” just as they arrived in America.
While Gov. Sam Brownback and conservatives in the legislature blocked expansion of federal Medicaid to 150,000 Kansans, those unfortunates are not left to die on the streets. They can seek care in public hospital emergency rooms. Though, of course, they get no care beyond the emergency — no family doctor, no immunizations, no exams, no medications. By comparison, the starving Irish got no treatment at all.
Sir Charles Trevelyn, the British official who cheered the famine on, stressed the moral issue.
“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson,” Sir Charles wrote. “That calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
Somewhat similar, but how much kinder, is this statement by Melika Willoughby, the governor’s aide, who also spoke of moral evil.
“Governor Brownback’s primary objection is a moral one: Medicaid expansion creates new entitlements for able-bodied adults without dependents, prioritizing those who choose not to work before the intellectually, developmentally, and physically disabled, the frail and elderly, and those struggling with mental health issues. This isn’t just bad policy, this is morally reprehensible.”
Another entitlement like Social Security and Medicare! How awful! And all those people “who choose not to work!” A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found that two-thirds of those needing help actually live in households where somebody works, and more than half have jobs of their own, many at the Kansas minimum wage of $7.25 hourly.
Willoughby and the governor himself make another point about prioritizing “non-workers” over frail and elderly, etc. Actually, there is not one line but, instead, two lines of people waiting for help: the frail and elderly, etc., in one line and families too poor to pay for medical care in the other. Helping the latter group would in no way injure the former.
But doesn’t that phrase have a ring. It’s “morally reprehensible” to help these 150,000 Kansans by offering them medical care. A very few poor people are eligible under KanCare, our state’s privatized Medicaid. That includes only adults with children whose incomes are below 38 percent of the poverty level. For a family of four, that cannot be higher than $9,348 a year. Adults with no children are altogether barred from Medicaid. As Sir Charles said, the calamity of poverty “must not be too much mitigated…”
Later in the famine, Sir Charles wrote: “It is a great object not to revive the habit of dependence on government aid.”
That’s why the phrase “able-bodied” pops up so frequently in the rhetoric of Sir Charles, Ms. Willoughby and Gov. Brownback. Being both needy and able-bodied is shameful. Though in Kansas, “able bodied” means only that you are not receiving disability payments.
Perhaps the greatest example of Brownback’s generosity is the way he has, in effect, given back every dime Obamacare offered to help these 150,000 Kansans. Check the website of the Kansas Hospital Association, where a whirligig set of numbers symbolically totals Medicaid money flowing out of Kansas, back to the feds, so they can pass it on to the 31 states and the District of Columbia that approved Medicaid expansion. Last time I looked, our total Kansas giveaway was well over $1 billion. See the current figure for yourself at www.kha-net.org/.
Willoughby poo-poos the idea that the lost $1.8 billion caused the recent bankruptcy of Mercy hospital at Independence, Kan. and is now forcing the sale of St. Francis Health in Topeka. But Lee Norman, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Medical Center, speaks wistfully of money his hospital has lost.
“I’d be happy to see Medicaid expansion,” he said. “Then we wouldn’t have to write off as bad debt $30 million a year for patient care.”
Anyhow, we must all thank Governor Brownback and our conservative legislators for benefits they have lavished on poor people in other states, the states that expanded Medicaid.