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No balm in Alaska if lawmakers stay hard-hearted on Medicaid expansion

Those familiar with Hebrew Scripture will recall Jeremiah's lament at the suffering of the people of Judah: "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people?" (Jeremiah, 8:22).

Alaska's uninsured and uninsurable are also suffering. However, unlike the rebellious of Judah, theirs is not a failure of faith, but the failure of a system that denies them access to affordable health care. These Alaskans need more than the balm from the cottonwood tree. They need Medicaid expansion.

With Alaska's new minimum wage, an Alaskan working full time would earn roughly $18,000 a year and fall $2,500, or 286 working hours, short of federal subsidies for health insurance. This person would have to spend approximately $6,000 for health insurance. In contrast, an Alaskan earning $22,000 a year can purchase health insurance for less than $1,000. This kind of an inequity cries out for a response from our elected leaders.

Anchorage Faith & Action Congregations Together, a federation of 15 churches representing eight different denominations and more than 10,000 people, has been working for more than two years to address the Medicaid gap, an unfortunate consequence of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made accepting Medicaid expansion optional. So far, despite widespread public support, Alaska's legislative majority continues to oppose Medicaid expansion, leaving 41,000 uninsured Alaskans without a remedy.

In 2013, after extensive research, AFACT produced and distributed to our congregations 4,000 copies of an informational booklet on Medicaid expansion, and presented this information to more than 800 of its members. During the most recent legislative session, AFACT traveled to Juneau twice: first, to meet with over 35 legislators and the governor to discuss Medicaid expansion, and second, to testify before the House Health and Social Services Committee. On April 16, AFACT organized a rally in Anchorage with partner organizations to show our overwhelming support for Medicaid expansion. The rally drew over 400 people, demonstrating how important this issue is to people of faith, and was the catalyst to similar rallies statewide including in Fairbanks, Juneau, and the Valley. For his part, Gov. Walker was asked by the majority caucus to introduce a stand-alone Medicaid expansion bill, which he did in good faith. The bill remains in limbo awaiting a floor vote.

For the next several days, our legislators will be enjoying a respite from the hard work they've done this session. We pray that this will be a time for reflection, reconnection, and a renewal of tired spirits. When they return to Juneau, we pray that they will let light and truth, rather than politics and partisanship, guide them. We pray that they will have "eyes to see and ears to hear" the suffering and frustration of their uninsured constituents. As people of faith, we in AFACT will continue to pray for them as they attend to the business of serving the people of Alaska.

There can be a balm in Gilead as long as people of faith are willing to live their faith fully, as long as our elected officials are willing to answer the call to keep all of God's children healthy, and as long as Alaskans are willing to stand with their uninsured brothers and sisters and call for our legislators to accept Medicaid expansion now. In the words of a familiar hymn: "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole." For uninsured Alaskans, that balm is access to affordable health care. That balm is Medicaid expansion.

The Rev. Max Lopez-Cepero is pastor at First Covenant Church in Anchorage. The Rev. Fred Bugarin is pastor at St. Anthony Catholic Parish in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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