By: John Latimer
Source: Lebanon Daily News
Senator hears from families who need Medicaid to survive
Gwen Wenger doesn’t know how she and her family would survive without the Medicaid benefits that cover tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses each year for her severely mentally and physically disabled daughter.
Emma, 14, has a rare seizure disorder and has been confined to a wheelchair. She was in a crib to sleep at night until she was 10, and then was able to get a special bed through Medicaid.
“It has left Emma globally delayed,” said Wenger. “She doesn’t walk or talk and she has full care needs. But that aside, she has the sweetest personality.”
Wenger shared her family’s story with Sen. Bob Casey Monday morning as Emma dozed in her wheelchair, her faithful care dog, Kindle, curled at her feet when Casey made a visit to Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13’s office on Cumberland Street. Also there were state and local IU officials and local school administrators.
The topic was the impact the proposed Medicaid and Medicare spending controls contained in the Senate Republican health care bill will have on families’ like the Wenger’s. The proposed cuts also affect school districts that are reimbursed for the care they provide to Medical Assistance eligible students.
Gwen and her husband, Keith, live in Cornwall. Both have good jobs. Gwen works as a first grade teacher in the Warwick School District and her husband is employed by Lancaster Stone Co.
Their health insurance is "excellent" and covers the basics, Wenger said. But it doesn’t cover everything, she told Casey, reading from a shopping list of Emma's equipment, medications, therapy and nursing care that are covered by Medicaid.
“These are not the extras that make life easier,” Wenger said, looking at her sleeping daughter. “These are Emma’s necessities for her life, that give her some quality of life.”
Wenger believes there is a missperception among the public about the type of people who receive Medicaid.
“Medicaid is thought of as something generally for low-income families. Or, you know, it’s kind of a mindset. But that’s not the case. It’s to help children with disabilities that come from any kind of families,” she said.
Casey, a Democrat who is up for reelection to a third term next year, did not come to IU 13 to be convinced on how he will vote on the Senate GOP health care bill, which would repeal Obamacare and is struggling to muster support among members of the Republican Party.
He called the bill "unconscionable" and "insulting" because cuts to Medicaid iexpansion in Pennsylvania alone will cost $35 billion while $33 billion in tax cuts will go to the country's wealthiest families.
"I am not going to support tax cuts for 400 of the wealthiest families in the country to allow cuts to Medicaid of that kind," he said.
Casey was at the IU to gather firsthand information on how lives will be dramatically changed by the cuts proposed in the Republican health care bill so he can use it to convince his Republican colleagues in Washington to vote against the bill when the debate on the bill resumes this week.
"It's always easy when you are debating public policy to dismiss data or policy or even a really good chart," Casey said. "It's exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss a child."
In responding to Wenger’s fear of a future without adequate Medicaid, Casey said she should not even have to be worrying about that.
“That’s one of the parts about this whole debate that enrages me,” Casey said, with no hint of rage in his characteristically calm voice. “There shouldn’t be any uncertainty about this. Not even a half an hour of uncertainty. But that is what some are proposing.”
Casey and the assembled educators heard other stories of heartbreak, perseverance and dependence shared by mothers who each day face the struggle of caring for their disabled sons and daughters, relying on a system that until now has worked for them.
For Devon Yiengst who, with her husband Michael, is raising 12 year-old twin boys with multiple mental and physical disabilities, Medicaid is the only thing keeping them in their Myerstown home. Her prescription expenses just for one of her sons is $3,000 a month, she said.
"It is amazing what Medical Assistance does for our family," she said. "If we didn't have it we would live in a box. We would be on the streets."
Yiengst called for some common sense.
"They didn't ask for this life. They didn't ask to be handicapped. But to take something away that you could possibly keep on to help their needs, I don't see what the reason would be," she said.
Angela Wilhelm credited the therapy paid for by Medicaid for giving her 14-year-old son Jack, who has cerebral palsy, a good quality of life. The teen lives with his mom, dad, Jason, and sister, Morgan, in North Cornwall Township and attends classes in the Cornwall Lebanon School District.
"The education and help and guidance received due to funding is invaluable. I've watched him grow into a funny, smart and determined kid and I can't imagine not being able to support him in our home school and community," she said.
Casey called the mothers' statements powerful, and said testimony like theirs is not heard enough in Washington
"Your presence here and your own testimony is part of the way we make the case, because we are in a real debate," he said. "I think it is a fundamental debate about what kind of country we are going to be at its core," he said.
Those representing education, like Cornwall-Lebanon School District Superintendent Phillip Domencic, noted the impact that Medical Assistance reimbursement cuts will have on local schools.
The problems won't go away, and because providing the care is federally mandated, Domencic said, neither will the costs. The burden of paying for it will just shift.
"Everyone wants to be fiscally responsible but what they are really doing, ultimately, is, the local districts who are the service providers are the ones who are going to do it," he said.
"This might be the most egregious and almost overwhelming unfunded mandate you could imagine," he said.
Casey would not predict the final outcome of the health care bill, which is expected to come to a vote in two or three weeks. Nor would he weigh its impact on next year’s congressional election.
He said he does not put faith in published reports that the bill’s passage, which will require 50 votes, is a long shot. He noted that “sweeteners” to the bill, like more money for opioid abuse, might be enough to sway Republican senators who are on the fence.
Casey is, however, hopeful the word about the value of Medicaid -- and how many benefit from it from all walks of life -- will spread and sway the debate.
He added that Republican strategists may just have miscalculated on this one.
"I think they thought they could make the argument that Medicaid was a 'them' program, not a me program or someone I know program," he said.
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