Speakers back bill seeking Iowa Medicaid expansion

DES MOINES – Iowa’s current program to help low-income residents who don’t qualify for Medicaid is far too costly and limited, Democratic lawmakers and other supporters argued Monday as they pushed for expanding the federal program in the state.

Everyone who testified during a packed legislative hearing supported a proposal that would broaden state eligibility requirements for Medicaid and add up to 150,000 residents to the program. President Barack Obama’s new health care law provides funding to states to expand Medicaid, which serves low-income residents, including children, and the disabled.

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said both Democrats and Republicans agree that IowaCare, a state-funded program that helps about 70,000 low-income residents who don’t qualify for Medicaid, isn’t effective.

“It’s intention was good when it was first created, but it’s very limited and very costly,” Jochum said during a meeting of the Senate’s human resources subcommittee.

Under the expansion, those covered under IowaCare would be transitioned into Medicaid.

Dr. Richard Denning, medical director at Mercy Care Center, testified that uninsured cancer patients in Iowa are discovering their illness at incurable stages of the disease. He told the subcommittee that those patients would be eligible for prevention and early detection services covered by Medicaid but not by IowaCare.

“It will save lives,” he said.

Denning noted that cancer patients covered by IowaCare also can’t get treatment for their radiation and chemotherapy treatment at Broadlawn, one of only two hospitals in the state that takes that type of insurance.

Lou Ann Burkle of Des Moines read through tears to the committee about her mentally ill daughter who was bumped from Medicaid to IowaCare and is now overwhelmed by a new system of treatment where she waits longer for medication, counseling and treatment.

“To deny Medicaid for our loved ones is heartless, unjust and immoral,” she said.

Republican Rep. Dave Heaton, who sits on the House Human Resources Committee, said after the hearing he agreed that IowaCare has its shortcomings, such as little coverage for transportation or pharmaceuticals. But he wouldn’t say whether he supported dismantling IowaCare or possibly renewing it with federal dollars, like Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed. IowaCare is scheduled to expire at the end of 2013.

“House Republicans are not ready to make up their mind on this issue,” said Heaton, whose committee would consider the proposal in the House.

Senate Democrats have backed expanding Medicaid, though Branstad has said he doesn’t trust in federal guarantees to pay the increased costs.

No vote was taken Monday. The subcommittee is expected to hold another hearing on the proposal later this month. If approved, the legislation would move to the full Senate Human Resources Committee.