MONTGOMERY — Democrats in the Alabama Senate say they have only one priority for the current legislative session: Convince Gov. Robert Bentley to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.
There are nine Senate Democrats in the 34-member chamber.
They said they see no more important issue facing the state than providing medical care for the up to 300,000 additional Alabamians who could be eligible under the act.
“This is the most important issue, because if you look at the health and vitality of a state, you have to look at the health and vitality of its people,” Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, said.
Bentley said in November he won’t allow the expansion under the new federal law sometimes called “Obamacare.”
“Our priority right now is fixing the system we have, not expanding a broken system,” Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said Tuesday. “Gov. Bentley established the Alabama Medicaid Advisory Commission to examine issues of reform and look for ways to make Medicaid more sustainable.”
That commission recently sent Bentley its finalized recommendations, which he is reviewing.
Alabama spends more than $600 million a year on a Medicaid system that serves more than 900,000 low-income Alabamians, including children.
Democrats said the expansion would result in $20 billion in new economic activity and almost $1 billion in state tax revenues during six years.
Senate Minority Leader Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said Democrats will be “working, pushing and if it comes down to it, fighting” for the expansion. They didn’t mention any specific legislation that they may introduce in the legislative session, but accused Bentley and others of “standing in the hospital door” and blocking access to care.
“If we can’t get (Bentley) to agree with us, we will have to come up with legislation,” Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said Tuesday. Any legislation would have to get approval by the Republican supermajority in the Senate and House.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the general fund budget, said Tuesday that Medicaid expansion is in Bentley’s hands.
“It’s his call to make,” Orr said.
Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, compares the expansion to an economic development project. If a company were offering to generate $20 billion in economic activity, the state would be doing everything possible to make that happen.
“And rightfully so,” Irons said.
She said expanding Medicaid would create new jobs and improve the quality of health care for Medicaid patients and the privately insured alike.
“Everyone is going to benefit,” she said.
Not all Shoals lawmakers think the expansion is feasible.
Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said Tuesday that even if the federal government pays for the expansion for three years as it said it will, the state would have increased costs after that. Greer fears the expansion wouldn’t be sustainable under the state’s current Medicaid setup.
“It would be like giving people something and then taking it away,” he said. “We can’t fund (the Medicaid program) we’ve got now. The economy will turn around some day, but right now, I see no earthly way to pay for it.”
Mary Sell can be reached at mary.sell@TimesDaily.com.