Members of the clergy are having a tough time dealing with the Missouri legislature this year.
Or maybe it’s the other way around.
A few weeks ago, we recounted how a pastor was berated by lawmakers after she had the gall to testify at a committee hearing in opposition to a sham payday loan “reform” bill. (Which has passed the legislature, by the way.)
But that was just a tune-up for this week, when about 300 faith leaders and supporters packed the Senate galleries and interrupted the proceedings with chanting and singing. The protest was an effort to plead with lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility limits, which in Missouri are among the lowest in the nation.
Twenty-three clergy members were politely arrested by capitol police. No one was handcuffed or hauled off.
The response from some legislators was less measured.
Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Republican from Kansas City, North, who is fighting the good fight to expand Medicaid, took to Twitter to express his dismay. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” he lamented, “after all the work I’ve put in... to be sunk by the very people I’m trying to help.”
Myron Neth, a Republican House member from Liberty, sent an email to constituents.
“Well, I can almost definitively say that we will not be expanding Medicaid this year,” he declared. “The large number of Medicaid supporters, many clergy included, started a protest in the Senate gallery and had to be forcibly removed.”
For heaven’s sake. When did the Missouri legislature become so prissy?
This is the group that had just overridden Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto and rammed through a risky income tax cut in the face of determined opposition. These are the folks who cause lobbyists to tremble, who bluster and spar in the chambers.
And now a couple dozen pastors singing “Amazing Grace” is a deal breaker?
The faith leaders can hardly be blamed for venting some frustration. The legislative session ends next week, and Missouri is still refusing to expand Medicaid eligibility to the limits outlined in the federal Affordable Care Act, even though the federal government would pay all of the cost at first and never less than 90 percent.
The state’s current threshold is a tragedy. A parent can earn no more than 19 percent of the federal poverty level, an annual pay of just more than $4,000 for a family of four. Childless adults aren’t eligible at all.
The legislature’s refusal to expand eligibility has left nearly 300,000 Missourians, mostly working people, in a coverage gap. They make too little to participate in the new insurance exchange and too much to be eligible for Medicaid.
That is 300,000 people who can’t easily call a doctor for an antibiotic, or get early warning chest pains checked out, or do something about their hobbled knees.
Susan McCann, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty, was one of the pastors arrested Tuesday in the gallery.
“Looking down there on the Senate floor, it hit me more powerfully than ever before that 34 people hold the welfare of 300,000 Missourians in their hands,” she said.
Actually, only six to eight senators, all of them Republicans, are thought to be dead set against Medicaid expansion. The House appears willing to pass a bill that expands eligibility while imposing some requirements on recipients. Nixon has been pushing to get more Missourians into health care.
Missouri lawmakers are big on free speech. Unlimited campaign contributions, we are told, are a form of free speech. There are no limits on lobbyist gifts because, hey, lobbyists and their clients have the right to free speech.
Surely these free-speech champions will support the right of the pastors to make their voices heard. At the very least, don’t use them as an excuse for denying health coverage to 300,000 people.