Brewer champions Medicaid expansion

March 06, 2013

Governor Jan Brewer and President Barack Obama probably don’t agree on much, but when it comes to Medicaid in Arizona, they seem to be on the same page.

brewerdocs Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer held a rally Tuesday in support of Medicaid expansion. Above, she is surrounded by medical staff who also support the move. (Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

Brewer supports expanding the program to cover an estimated 300,000 low-income residents – and accepting nearly $8 million in federal funding to do it. She explained why to a crowd of supporters and protesters at a rally Tuesday at the state capitol.

Brewer was flanked by a few dozen medical professionals in white lab coats as she touted the expansion of the program. AHCCCS (pronounced “access”) suffered devastating cuts during recent years, resulting in more than 140,000 patients losing coverage. This plan brings the number back up using funds from the Affordable Care Act. Supporting this federal program is a striking departure for Brewer. Up until January, she harshly criticized it.

But Brewer never mentioned this change of heart during the rally. Much of her short speech was directed toward the medical personnel who had come to support the plan.

“You are truly on the front lines delivering cost-effective health care to Arizona families,” she told the rows of doctors and nurses. “And you know better than anyone the growing crisis facing Arizona families and hospitals due to the large number of uninsured in our community.”

Brewer estimates every Arizona family with health insurance pays about $2,000 extra annually because of uninsured patients in the state. But that’s not the only problem she sees.

“If we don’t do this, more than 50,000 Arizonans will lose their medical coverage on Jan. 1, 2014, even if they’re in the middle of their treatment,” she said.

Brewer’s comments continued drew applause – but not from everyone. Protestors with signs and even a few fake skeletons watched from the sidelines. Many questioned Brewer’s Republican values and dedication to small government. Across the country, these arguments aren’t isolated. As of March 1, 24 governors in the U.S. support the Medicaid expansion, but 14 other governors have vowed to fight it.

Jane Orient is one of many who think a fight like that might be the best thing for Arizona. The Tucson doctor traveled to the rally specifically to be a voice against AHCCCS. Point blank, she calls the care “lousy.”

skeleton Not everyone at the rally was in favor of expansion, including these skeletons placed at the scene by protesters. (Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

“There are a lot of physicians who are unwilling to take it,” she said, “and they are unwilling to take it for a lot of good reasons, such as the huge administrative hassles that retract from patient care, plus the miserable rate of payment.”

All of this is why Orient has refused to take Medicaid ever since she opened her own practice in 1981. She even thinks of herself as a conscientious objector to the program. She’s seen patients completely free of charge rather than deal with Medicaid – and believes many other doctors would do the same.

But Dr. Eric Hegybeli sees the Medicaid question differently. While working in Yavapai County, he witnessed devastating effects on psychiatric patients due to Medicaid cuts.

“And because they were not able to get the counseling support, and they were not able to get the medications they needed, they ended up going into the psychiatric hospital after suicide attempts,” he said. “So I definitely support getting those people back onto the rolls.”

Hegybeli understands opponents’ reluctance to adding more Medicaid patients to the system, but he thinks their attitude might change if they thought of the program differently.

He doesn’t think of Medicaid as a way of life. He says it’s more of a bridge to a better life. 


EDITOR'S NOTE (3/6/2013): This story has been modified to reflect it is the Medicaid program, not the Medicare program, that will be expanded. Medicaid is aimed at helping the low-income population, while Medicare is for senior citizens. Arizona's Medicaid program is called AHCCCS.