Guest Opinions

Medicaid cuts pose big threat to Idaho

Banu Symington
Banu Symington

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA). The proposed federal law would reverse coverage gains and fiscal savings realized in Idaho since we established our state health exchange in 2014. This exchange has provided coverage to over 90,000 Idahoans (36,179 are in rural areas) and has reduced state and county government spending from $55.3 million in 2012 to $34 million in 2016. As a physician serving rural residents in the Twin Falls area, I know Idaho can’t afford the AHCA.

The fine print of the bill provides massive tax cuts to insurance companies while enabling insurance companies to charge you more — especially if you have a pre-existing condition (cancer, diabetes, asthma, heartburn and insomnia to name a few). The bill also cuts $834 billion from Medicaid — threatening access to lifesaving coverage for kids, families, seniors and people with disabilities. Children in Idaho’s small towns and rural areas, like my hometown of Twin Falls, will be especially hard hit.

Researchers at Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina indicate that a larger share of children and families living in small towns and rural areas rely on Medicaid for health coverage. In Idaho, 39 percent of children in rural areas and small towns receive coverage through Medicaid, compared to 35 percent in urban areas. Nationally, there is a direct correlation between increases in Medicaid and CHIP coverage and reductions in the rate of uninsured children in small towns and rural areas.

Even Idahoans who aren’t directly covered by Medicaid should be concerned about what cuts to the program would mean for hospitals, clinics and physicians serving our state’s small towns and rural communities. Rural hospitals would be dealt a bigger blow from Medicaid cuts given that the program is such an important source of health coverage for its patients. ER visits and hospitalizations continue even when people are not covered, and this uncompensated care drives up costs for all of us and threatens to bankrupt rural hospitals. Strong rural hospitals are essential to supporting strong rural communities.

Medicaid is a lifeline that runs through rural Idaho, ensuring the most vulnerable Idahoans get the care they need. It keeps our rural hospitals running and able to serve patients who otherwise would be forced to drive hundreds of miles to receive care. Cutting Medicaid does nothing to rein in personal health care costs. Instead, these cuts take away coverage from friends and neighbors who need it most. Idaho can’t afford to turn our backs now on the progress we’ve made in getting our children the health coverage they need.

The AHCA now sits in the Senate. There appears to be a rushed effort to pass the bill without public input. I’m asking Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch to oppose any legislation that cuts Medicaid or removes protections for Idahoans with pre-existing conditions and to resist a hurried passage of the AHCA. I hope you’ll join me.

Dr. Banu Symington is the chief of staff at the Magic Valley St. Luke’s Hospital. She is the most recent past governor of the Idaho chapter of the American College of Physicians.