With Deadlines Looming, Wyomingites Rally for Medicaid Expansion

A bill that could provide up to 25,000 additional Wyoming residents with healthcare coverage will be debated in the state Senate in the coming days.
A protestor demonstrating their support for expanding Medicaid at a rally in Sheridan, Wyoming, on March 15. (Courtesy of Healthy Wyoming)

by | Mar 29, 2021 | Health, News

Activists, lawmakers and concerned citizens convened over Zoom last Thursday evening for a virtual rally in support of an effort over 10 years in the making. Wyoming residents from Laramie to Sheridan celebrated Medicaid expansion getting closer to becoming law than it ever has before in the Cowboy State. 

A bill that would expand government-issued health insurance in Wyoming advanced through the state House of Representatives last week, and it will likely be debated in the Senate in the coming days. If it passes, an additional 20,000-25,000 Wyomingites would be eligible for healthcare coverage, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. That includes Maggie McAllister, a farmer from Sublette County, who spoke at the rally. 

“I’m starting my farm back up and growing it. And there’s just…there’s no money for health insurance,” she said. “It’s $1,200-plus a month just for me. That’s as much as it costs to rent a place.

McAllister falls into the so-called “coverage gap” of Wyomingites who make too much money to qualify for traditional Medicaid, but who can’t afford insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. She also recently moved back to the Pinedale area from Colorado, where she qualified for Medicaid. Wyoming is one of just 12 states that hasn’t expanded the federal government’s program.

“So, now being back here in Wyoming, I again have no health coverage,” McAllister said. “And if anything happens, you know, I’m not going to go to the doctor.” 

Legislators who support expanding Medicaid have argued that beyond keeping Wyomingites healthier, increased coverage would be good for the state’s economy. The federal government would cover 90 percent of the costs of expansion, which proponents say is a golden opportunity in a year defined by the state’s budget deficit. 

Lou Hochheiser, who is based in Jackson, is the former CEO of St. John’s Health. Although an exact number of how many people in Teton County would gain coverage from this bill isn’t available, Hochheiser said he believes a few thousand residents is a reasonable estimate. He also said he used to receive calls all the time from people who fell into the coverage gap and who were in desperate situations because of serious health complications like cancer or a life-threatening injury. 

“We’re going to pay for their care because that’s the way this community is. But we’re paying more for their care than we would if they were enrolled in a program like Medicaid,” he said. “And that is because they’re putting off their care till they get sicker, and then the care is costing more.”

Expanding federal insurance programs is “a no-brainer,” Hoccheiser said. He’s cautiously optimistic that the measure will now pass the state Senate, especially because he was skeptical that it would initially pass the House. 

Although Republican senators have said Medicaid expansion will get a “fair hearing,” it still faces an uphill battle. Many lawmakers who are against expanding coverage worry that relying on the federal government could create a situation where Wyoming is picking up a larger bill years down the line and making a promise to its citizens it can’t keep. Governor Mark Gordon has been supportive of a state-specific solution for expanding healthcare coverage for years, but the bill’s sponsors say time is running out and that no solution has materialized. 

The bill must pass three readings in the Senate, and then the Governor’s desk, in order to become law. Teton County representatives have all come out in support of expanding Medicaid, but several lawmakers statewide say they’re still undecided. The deadline for the bill to be reported out of its assigned Senate committee (Labor, Health and Social Services) is Wednesday, and the entire effort will die a procedural death should that deadline be missed. More information on the specifics of the proposed bill is available at healthywyoming.org

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About Will Walkey

Will is KHOL's newest reporter and producer. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, he recently graduated from Columbia University with a Master's Degree in journalism. He likes to read and write about housing, local politics, and history, and spends most of his free time fishing or biking. He's excited to be living in Wyoming, and looks forward to honing in on his unique radio voice by highlighting the locals that make Jackson special. Contact Will with tips at will@jhcr.org, and follow him on Twitter at @WillWalkey.

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