Anchorage Church Officials Lead Rally For Medicaid Expansion

photo credit: Jonathan Casurella
photo credit: Jonathan Casurella

Hundreds of Anchorage residents gathered in Cuddy park Thursday night to rally for Medicaid expansion. The event was organized by AFACT, Anchorage Faith & Action Congregations Together- a coalition of local churches. Organizers hope the rally will make a difference as lawmakers enter the final days of the legislative session. 

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The crowd squeezed together on the amphitheater bleachers, holding up signs that read, “Expand Medicaid: Save Money, Save Lives” And “We Are Our Brother’s Keepers.” Pastor Julia Seymour from Lutheran Church of Hope started things off with an new version of an old song.

“For Medicaid expansion I’m gonna let it shine, For Medicaid expansion, I’m gonna let it shine….”

The crowd was diverse: Samoan, Hispanic, Alaska Native, young and old. Some had health insurance. Others did not, like Tara Devlin, who spoke at the rally. Devlin graduated from college and then started a preschool last year. When she went to sign up for insurance on healthcare.gov, she found out she earned too little to buy subsidized insurance. In most other states, she would have been able to enroll in Medicaid.

photo credit: Jonathan Casurella
photo credit: Jonathan Casurella

Some Republican lawmakers say the state can’t afford to add Alaskans to the Medicaid system, even with the federal government paying most of the bill. Devlin thinks they’re wrong:

“It’s an investment in healthy Alaskans and it’s an investment in young people like me who want to start businesses and be here for the rest of my life and put my kids through the schools here. By not investing in me it makes people like me want to leave.”

Medicaid expansion would give federal health insurance to up to 40,000 low income, mostly childless adults in Alaska.

The local chapter of Americans For Prosperity has been making the argument against expansion this session. State Director Jeremy Price is considering organizing his own rally. He questions a recent poll showing even in the most conservative areas of the state, more Alaskans support expansion than oppose it. Price thinks many Alaskans don’t understand what expansion means and because of that, the state should wait:

“Let’s focus on something that Alaskans agree on. We see reform as something that Alaskans agree on. Supporters of expansion and opponents of expansion both agree on reform. So let’s focus on that. Let’s pass reform first.”

Price says it’s clear the Medicaid system is broken.

Towards the end of the rally at Cuddy park, Pastor Julia Seymour led the crowd in a prayer for every elected official in Juneau.

“After each name we will respond, may light and truth guide them…”

Seymour went to Juneau last month and met with several lawmakers to make the case for Medicaid expansion. She says she learned a lot from the trip. She thinks some lawmakers are paying attention to misinformation instead of the truth about Medicaid expansion. But she is willing to be patient:

“The bible tells us that faith, hope and love go on and do not end. And I’m keeping the faith and I’m hopeful, but my love for some of the leaders is waning now and then.”

Seymour thinks her trip to Juneau did make a difference though. And she hopes the rally can too:

“If it doesn’t make a difference, we really have to question whether our leaders our representing the people of Alaska. We vote them in not to hold to their own agendas but to pay attention to what we lift up as the issues of our community.”

If Medicaid expansion doesn’t pass this legislative session, Seymour says there will be a lot of grieving by people like her who expect to see it happen. But she won’t abandon the fight. She says she can’t give up until all Alaskans have some kind of health safety net.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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Annie Feidt is the Editor and Producer of Alaska News Nightly, and is also a frequent contributor to the show. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace. Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49thstate just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon. afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie