Column: Nurse on front lines sees value of health-care act

From the Columbus Dispatch. Tuesday, June 13, 2017. 

Pat Waller is on the front lines of our health-care system. As a labor and delivery nurse at O’Bleness Hospital in Athens, she has devoted her career to taking care of pregnant women and infants.

She is passionate about her work. “It is really the best feeling,” she says, “that you were there at that moment in time when this precious child came into the world.”

Pat — who is a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union where I serve as president — has seen firsthand the powerful difference that the Affordable Care Act has made in the lives of people in her community. She estimates that 60-70 percent of patients at O’Bleness have coverage thanks to the Medicaid expansion under the ACA. Throughout Ohio, the uninsured rate fell from 12 percent to 6 percent between 2013 and 2015, the period when people began enrolling in the ACA exchanges.

But back in Washington, DC, politicians are working overtime to take away that coverage and undermine Pat’s work. In early May, the House of Representatives voted narrowly to approve a bill that would repeal the ACA and replace it with a plan that would make the health care system significantly worse for working families.

According to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, 23 million people would lose their health insurance, nearly 540,000 of them in Ohio. Protections for people with pre-existing health conditions, a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act, would be eliminated. So if you have high blood pressure, or if your child has asthma, insurance companies can price you out of the market.

The congressional health-care bill also cuts a staggering $834 billion from the Medicaid program, which serves low-income pregnant women and children, people with disabilities, senior citizens requiring long-term care and more. And in Ohio and elsewhere, as Pat points out, Medicaid dollars are also essential to addressing the growing opioid addiction crisis.

The new budget proposal from the Trump administration piles on another $611 billion in Medicaid cuts. All told, the program — which 1 in 5 Americans depends upon for health care — would be slashed nearly in half over the next decade. Meanwhile, millionaires and large corporations would be in line for a huge tax giveaway.

Shrinking Medicaid would also have a domino effect. If the federal government is contributing less to the program, the states would have to pick up the slack, which could mean less investment in schools, law enforcement, transportation and other public services we all depend on every day.

In Athens, these cuts could be devastating. Not only would far fewer residents have health coverage, but Medicaid also represents a key revenue source that sustains the hospital where Pat Waller works. O’Bleness is the only facility within a 45-minute drive that delivers babies; plus, it is a community anchor and one of the county’s largest employers. Pat worries that Medicaid cuts will lead to layoffs, shattering the local economy and leaving her patients without access to care.

But there is still time to derail these plans. As of yet, none of these cuts have become law. The ball is now in the court of the U.S. Senate, where Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, is playing a key role in drafting a bill. Portman has not said where he stands on the House plan to cap the Medicaid dollars that the federal government gives to Ohio and thus end the program as we know it. The time is now for Ohioans to let him know they want to protect the Medicaid program that helps so many of their neighbors live with health and dignity.

Pat Waller is fighting for a health-care system that provides access to everyone. “I think health care is a basic human right,” she says. “No one ever should have to worry between taking your child to the doctor or putting food on the table.” Not in “one of the strongest, richest countries in the world.”

Let’s see if Portman and the rest of the Senate are listening.


Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, a union of 1.6 million public service workers and retirees.

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