Comparing her directly to Judas, the head of the Maricopa County Republican Committee blasted Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday for her bid to expand the state’s Medicaid program.
The comments by A.J. LaFaro came during the first legislative outing on the governor’s proposal to tap into federal funds to add about 300,000 people to the rolls of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. The multi-hour hearing appeared to change the minds of no one on the House Appropriations Committee, quickly turning into a debate on the role of government.
Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, argued that the state would be foolish to turn away $1.6 billion from the federal Affordable Care Act. The plan would not require new state dollars, with Arizona’s share being put up by a tax on hospitals.
And he argued that the more people who have health insurance means fewer people showing up in hospital emergency rooms when they get really sick but are unable to pay. He said hospitals pass that along in higher charges which then increase health insurance premiums for everyone else.
That premise was derided by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. He pointed out that hospitals have complained for years that they lose money every time they treat an AHCCCS patient because the program, jointly funded with federal and state dollars, does not pay enough to cover costs.
And he said if hospitals are unhappy now with nearly 1.3 million in the program, they’re really going to be upset with an expanded AHCCCS system.
“There is going to be a tsunami of people seeking new medical treatment,” he said.
But much of the opposition was on philosophy versus cash.
A parade of speakers talked about the nation’s $17 trillion deficit they said is only going to get worse because of the federal Affordable Care Act, the program that would provide the extra funds to expand AHCCCS. It currently provides care for most people below the federal poverty level, about $19,530 a year for a family of three.
The federal law, which kicks in next year, raises that to 133 percent of the poverty level. The actual figure is closer to 138 percent because of the way income would be calculated.
“The reason why we oppose this expansion, quite frankly, is it’s going to bankrupt the country,” said Kavanagh who chairs the committee.
“We’re going to be a third-tier country,” he continued. “We’re on the road to Greece,” citing that country’s financial problems caused by excess debt.
“It’s your children’s tax money,” added Rep. Adam Kwansman, R-Oro Valley.
But it was LaFaro, who attended the State of the State speech in January where Brewer unveiled her plan, who made the debate personal.
“I hate to say this, Jesus had Judas, Republicans have Gov. Brewer,” he said, pronouncing himself “shocked” at her proposal.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said his boss would not get into a war of words with LaFaro.
“There’s nothing I could say that could diminish his credibility any more than he already has,” Benson said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the issue could not even agree on some basic facts.
For example, Kavanagh said after Massachusetts implemented a similar plan under then-Gov. Mitt Romney the number of people using hospital emergency rooms increased. Kavanagh said that makes sense.
“If you give people insurance, they will use it,” he said.
But House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, cited a more recent article claiming that ER visits actually went down.
Then there’s the question of that “hidden health care tax,” the amount of money Brewer contends hospitals pass on to private insurers and those who pay their own bills to make up for what the uninsured do not pay.
Brewer has pegged that at about $2,000 a year for every family in the state. And Hamer said that will put downward pressure on premiums.
Kwansman said that makes no sense, saying that since the last AHCCCS expansion in 2000 insurance premiums in Arizona have increased 60 percent. He said there is no reason to believe that this expansion would curb further increases.
Hamer conceded that lawmakers should not expect rates to go down. He said there are other provisions in the Affordable Care Act that will boost premiums.
But he said that the move to bring in new federal dollars to help provide care to more makes financial sense and will help mitigate those increases.
Wednesday’s hearing did not even result in a vote that would advance the measure to the full House. And even if can eventually get through the committee, both House and Senate Republican leaders have said they will not allow a vote without significant changes.
Brewer said she already has provided protections to the state, including a “circuit breaker” to reverse the expansion if Congress at some point fails to provide the necessary dollars.