We should do more to help poor

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dear Editor:

At the end of last week, I felt proud of the Alabama House of Representatives for doing something positive to help the working poor in Alabama. The House passed 93-1 a proposal to create a statewide database of payday loans, making enforceable the current law that limits the total to $500 in payday loans that a person can borrow at any one time. I thank our representative, Mike Jones, for supporting this bill, and I hope that Jimmy Holley will do likewise when the Senate votes on it. I also hope that, whether the legislation comes up in this session or in the 2015 session, they will take the next step and support a bill to dramatically reduce the rates on these loans from their current usurious rates of up to 456 percent APR. Together, these two reforms would help poor people break a vicious cycle of dependence on loan sharks.

Rep. Jones and Sen. Holley should take two other steps to significantly improve the lives of the working poor in their districts and throughout the state. First, they should support Rep. Darrio Melton’s bill to increase in three $0.85 increments the minimum wage in Alabama from $7.25 an hour to $9.80 by Jan. 1, 2016. Unfortunately, according to news reports, Mr. Melton’s bill is stuck in committee and may remain there the rest of the session. Regardless, Jones and Holley should make it known publicly that they support the bill. Ideally, they would say it does not go far enough and would offer an amendment to raise it to $10.10 per hour, the federal minimum that President Obama is pushing Congress to pass. It seems to me that, in our time, it is an insult to require any employee to work for under $10 an hour. Even at that rate, supporting a family would be next to impossible; perhaps two people working fulltime at $10.10 an hour could manage.

Finally, our state representative and state senator should publicly call on Gov. Bentley to accept funding available under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid. Were the governor to accept this funding, he would make coverage available to thousands of the working poor in Alabama who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid at its current qualifying levels but who do not make enough to qualify for federal subsidies to help purchase insurance. Acceptance of this money and of Medicaid expansion should be a no-brainer, but backed by the Republican majority in both houses of the legislature and worried about being “primaried,” the governor has opted for political safety rather than for concern and courage.

Back in September, Alabama Media Group’s cartoonist J.D. Crowe perfectly depicted the parallel between Gov. Bentley’s position and the late Gov. George C. Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The sad reality is that Bentley’s “stand in the hospital door” does much more harm than Wallace’s theatrics. Uninsured and underinsured citizens throughout the state remain without adequate healthcare; the desperately ill among them, who have to get care regardless of its cost, live with the fear of bankruptcy.

In its 2012 study of the projected effects of Medicaid expansion, UAB researchers determined that up to 300,000 Alabamians could obtain coverage if, as the law provides, eligibility were extended to 138 percent of the poverty level. At this level, we’re talking about covering, for example, individuals with an income of around $15,000 a year and families of three with annual earnings of about $26,000—very modest incomes. The federal government would pay everything for the first three years of the expansion and would gradually reduce its contribution to 90 percent by 2020. I suspect that the billions of dollars in economic activity and in tax revenue that the expansion would generate would more than cover the 10 percent cost that the state would eventually assume.

Since the Affordable Care Act, with its optional state expansion of Medicaid, went into effect January 1 of this year, hundreds of people in Jones’s and Holley’s districts could have already been benefiting from Medicaid expansion. Had the governor agreed to accept federal money, fewer children would be missing days at school and fewer workers missing days on the job. Fewer of our neighbors would be waiting and waiting before going to the doctor or to the emergency room; some lives might even have been saved. Meanwhile, Andalusia Regional Hospital and Mizell Memorial Hospital would be experiencing a renaissance of reimbursement.

One would think that, as a physician, Gov. Bentley would welcome the chance for more people in Alabama to be insured and to receive needed health care. Apparently, however, his Republican moniker requires that he check at the door of the statehouse his Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. So far, by aiding and abetting him, his fellow Republicans Mike Jones and Jimmy Holley seem also to have checked at the statehouse door their affection for the people they were elected to serve. I hope they will have the wisdom to reverse course and to help the working poor here by pushing the governor out of the hospital door.

Yours truly,

Steve Hubbard