After six years of unsuccessful attempts to earn legislative approval for Medicaid expansion that would extend health care coverage to 90,000 Nebraskans generally described as the working poor, supporters Friday launched a petition drive to take the issue directly to Nebraska voters in November.
Noting that many of his legislative colleagues like to describe the people as "the second house" in Nebraska's unique one-house legislative system, Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said "it's time we listen to the second house, because the first house isn't getting it done."
"Politics are getting in the way," he said.
The people who would receive Medicaid coverage "aren't just losing their jobs, but losing their lives" because of a lack of health care coverage, Morfeld said, "and it's shameful."
"They are suffering every day," he said.
The initiative petition drive will begin the task of collecting the required 85,000 valid signatures of registered voters to place the issue on the general election ballot, working against a tight July 5 deadline.
With Nebraska Appleseed engineering the Insure the Good Life petition effort, supporters face what could be an expensive challenge that they said they can meet.
"We're confident we can get the support," Morfeld said. "I'll be collecting signatures myself."
Morfeld, who sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment (LR281CA) on Medicaid expansion that is languishing in a committee this legislative session, was joined at a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.
But supporters shone the spotlight on a couple of speakers who have struggled with chronic, life-threatening health challenges without access to health care coverage.
"While Nebraska lawmakers have not solved this problem, we've watched 32 other states and the District of Columbia expand Medicaid to give people a path to a healthier life," said Amanda Gershon of Lincoln.
"I was dying," Gershon said. "I needed health care desperately. At age 33, I was going to die."
Gershon said she eventually was able to acquire Medicaid coverage after her health conditions had deteriorated.
"Not having health insurance turns your life into a vicious cycle," Marea Bishop of Bellevue said.
"I can't afford medications and treatment, so I can't get healthy, which is what I need to do to be able to work," she said.
Asked whether state government can afford to pay its share of costs incurred by adding thousands of Nebraskans to the federal Medicaid program, Morfeld said "it is costing us more money not having them insured."
Morfeld noted that Nebraskans with private health care insurance are paying higher premiums to cover emergency room care for the uninsured, as well as the resulting social costs.
Supporters also argued that expanded Medicaid would boost local economies and help sustain health care facilities, particularly rural hospitals.