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Local advocates join others across the state to rally for Medicaid expansion

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Allen Thomas and Gabriel Baker discuss health care in North Carolina at the “Health Care Can’t Wait — Expand Medicaid” vigil on Wednesday evening.

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By Karen Eckert
The Daily Reflector

Friday, June 7, 2019

People in North Carolina are dying because they can’t afford medical treatment, according to an official with the N.C. Justice Center.

Sharon Evans, Medicaid coordinator with the center, spoke on Wednesday at the “Health Care Can’t Wait — Expand Medicaid” vigil, one of 22 such events held across the state.

Severe weather conditions drove the vigil indoors to the Laupus Library at the Brody School of Medicine. It was originally scheduled to take place at Lake Laupus. 

The vigils were held to get communities to understand the grave consequences when people don’t have health insurance, Evans said. 

“There are people who are dying because they can’t afford to go to the doctor and pay for prescription medication or even get the treatment that they need.” she said.

Evans said that not expanding Medicaid is relatively new for North Carolina. It is one of 14 states that elected not to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2012.

“From 1965 to 2012, we’ve had Medicaid expansion,” Evans said.

There are parents whose children receive Medicaid, but the parents don’t because they don’t qualify without the expansion piece, Evans said.

“That expansion piece is based on household size and income,” she said.

There are 148,273 people in Pitt County who have health insurance, but there are 24,250 people without it, Evans said.

The vigils were not being held just to bring awareness, Evans said, but to help people get involved.

“It’s going to take the voices of everyone in the community to understand the concerns about Medicaid expansion,” she said.

Sergeant Richard Williams of the Greenville Police Department was one of the guest speakers at the vigil. He said that he understands first-hand the need for Medicaid expansion, from both a personal and a professional standpoint.

“I was that child who grew up (with) a single-parent Mom (and) had Medicaid, but when I turned 18 I didn’t have access to that,” Williams said. Shortly after he turned 18, he said he found himself as a “poor kid” facing a serious medical issue with no health insurance. It wasn’t until a few years later, when he got a job at age 25, that he had coverage.

From a professional standpoint, Williams said he sees many situations where a family calls to ask for help for a family member and it is clear that the behavior the police encounter is related to mental health issues. 

If people have reliable access to health insurance and resources, they are more likely to take and stay on their medications, Williams said. 

“We’re talking about quality of life issues,” he said.

Allen Thomas, former mayor of Greenville and a 3rd District congressional candidate, also spoke at the vigil.

Thomas addressed both the economic and human effects of not having Medicaid expansion.

“The fact that we haven’t done expansion — that is close to 700 jobs — high-paying jobs with benefits just in Pitt County that are being foregone right now because we don’t have these elements in place,” he said.

Expansion would have brought $326 million in economic benefits from 2016-20, Thomas said, “real jobs, real impacts, $2.6 million in tax base in Pitt County alone that could be put into all types of care, all types of social programs across this county and across the state.”

The expansion also would have provided $135 million in health care “that we should be getting compensated for in this county alone, keeping people alive,” he said.

“It’s so easy to say ‘That’s someone else’s problem,’” Thomas said. “When a hurricane happens, we’re quick to help our community. Why can’t we do that every day?”

Those attending the vigil also had an opportunity to make comments.

Social worker Monica Daniels attended the event. 

“There are a lot of parents who are losing their children (to DSS custody) because they can’t get the help and the medication that they need to keep their families together,” Daniels said. “And the safety of the children (is) now involved when (the parents) can’t get those things.”

Esther Ross is a social worker with the ECU Specialty Clinic, which addresses infectious diseases, including HIV.

Ross said  North Carolina HIV infections are increasing among the 13-24-year-old age group, many of whom in the upper-age segment of the cohort who do not have health insurance.

Ross said she also sees a problem with patients who are 50 and older who are HIV positive. There are “viral suppressant” medications that patients can now receive, which means less infection going into the community and an increase in the quality of life and work for the patients themselves. But often patients have other issues, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, they cannot afford to treat.

Gabriel Baker, MedAssist development manager, also spoke at the event.

“We need health care for everyone — that’s a given,” Baker said. 

In the meantime, Baker said she wants to get the word out to the community about the services that MedAssist provides. The organization, which has been dubbed “N.C.’s free pharmacy,” can provide medications to people who are uninsured and who qualify as “low-income.”

However, MedAssist only can address the medication aspect of health care. The organization does not provide medical exams or other forms of treatment, she said.

“Not having health care is a big issue, especially for us in eastern North Carolina,” Evans said. “This issue impacts all of us, whether you have insurance or not.”

“(This event) puts a real human face on those in these rural areas that are forgotten,” Thomas said. “We need to take care of our most vulnerable.”

For more information about the N.C. Justice Center visit https://www.ncjustice.org. For more information about MedAssist visit https://medassist.org

Karen Eckert can be reached at 252-329-9565 or at keckert@reflector.com.