Alabama legislators, suddenly expressing deep sympathy for the one in five Alabamians who live in poverty, have failed to act on an issue that could both help the poor and improve the state economy.
The expressions of sympathy have come as they attempt to defend an ill-conceived bill that would drain millions from public schools for a tax-credit program that has shown no measurable benefits to the poor in other states.
The Alabama version will, according to the Alabama Association of School Boards, benefit about 10,600 families — most with high incomes — who already have their children in private schools. Combined, they will receive new tax credits of $37.1 million, all of it coming from the Education Trust Fund.
It also will benefit education corporations, who finally will see the payoff they failed to manage when a poorly drafted charter-school bill failed to pass last year.
A simple and inexpensive step that really would benefit Alabama’s growing number of poor remains in Gov. Robert Bentley’s trash bin.
Time is running out for a measure that would provide health care for about 300,000 uninsured citizens and bring billions of dollars to the state.
Alabama can join other states in expanding its Medicaid program in 2014 under the federal Affordable Health Care Act. It can do so at essentially no cost for three years. If projected economic benefits do not materialize, it can then end the experiment.
If the state sticks with the expansion, it would add an estimated $771 million in expenses over seven years. That’s serious money, but it would bring in about $11.7 billion in federal funds, according to a study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It also would lead to about $20 billion in direct and indirect spending in Alabama, and about $935 million in new tax revenue, more than enough to fund the added expense.
Bentley has said he will not expand Medicaid, at least until he reforms the existing program. Much more delay, however, and he will waste one of the three years in which the federal government will pay 100 percent of the increased benefit costs. Other states are implementing Medicaid reforms even as they expand their programs.
“If you delay for a year or two or three, you give up the biggest federal contribution,” David Becker, of UAB, said Tuesday. “Delaying the expansion does cause us to miss the boat.”
If Bentley and the Legislature fail to act, Alabama’s working poor must continue to depend on the most expensive form of health care, emergency rooms. Alabama residents use emergency room visits 17 percent more than the national average, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This increases Medicaid costs and raises premiums for those who have health insurance.
If lawmakers want to increase opportunities for the poor, poorly devised schemes to divert money from public schools is not the way to do it. Expanding Medicaid is.
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