Editorials

Editorial: Backing Medicaid expansion isn’t actually a crime

The unnecessarily long and frustrating saga of the Medicaid 23 ended this week in a Cole County courtroom. Protesters, most of them clergy, never should have been arrested for using a public space to voice their support for Medicaid expansion.
The unnecessarily long and frustrating saga of the Medicaid 23 ended this week in a Cole County courtroom. Protesters, most of them clergy, never should have been arrested for using a public space to voice their support for Medicaid expansion. File photo

The just cause of agitating for the poor was duly noted this week in a Cole County courtroom.

The remaining members of what was dubbed the Medicaid 23 — a group made up mostly of clergy from Kansas City who stood up to the Missouri legislature in 2014 — were sentenced.

The group had dwindled to seven, as most of the original 23 had accepted pardons from then-Gov. Jay Nixon. A fine of nothing — $0 — was imposed, along with one year of unsupervised probation for trespassing at the Missouri Capitol.

Bravo. They never should have been arrested. The protest was civil, organized and held in a public space.

Three years ago, about 300 people traveled to Jefferson City to protest the legislature’s reluctance to expand Medicaid. An estimated 300,000 low-income Missourians fall into a coverage gap, earning too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for Affordable Care Act subsidies. And it is not a stretch to assert that uninsured people have surely died because of a lack of access to health care.

The group of protesters piled into the balcony area at the Capitol, where the public is welcome, and sang hymns and civil-rights songs. The protest lasted about an hour. To underscore their point, 23 people stayed and continued singing as an act of civil disobedience. Under a prearranged agreement, Capitol security waited a bit, then tapped each lingering protester, signaling that it was his or her turn to be led away. That should have been the end of it. No arrests.

But that’s not what happened. The Cole County prosecutor pursued charges of trespassing and obstructing government operations against the 23, many of them among the most esteemed clergy in the Kansas City area. A 2016 trial found the group guilty only of trespassing.

After a spirited debate about the nature of civil disobedience, all but seven accepted pardons. Some questioned if a pardon negated their stance. Many felt that the arrests were a political move by the prosecutor.

The seven include the Rev. Susan McCann of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty, who is also board president of Communities Creating Opportunity, and the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield, pastor emeritus of the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church. Also sentenced were the Revs. Lloyd Fields and Ester Holzendorf, as well as Riccardo Lucas, all of Kansas City, and the Rev. Emmett Baker of St. Louis. The Rev. Jessie Fisher will appear later.

The Rev. Sam Mann, one of the original 23, noted, “I’m not about fighting the politics of Cole County. I’m about fighting for poor people and (against) the closing of rural hospitals.”

Amen to that.

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