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OHIO STATEHOUSE Advocates for Medicaid tout the human stories



Published: Sat, February 26, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Medicaid recipients gather at the Statehouse to tell why they need funding.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- Christina Schnetzer, a single mom on Medicaid struggling to make ends meet, hardly fits the image of a Statehouse lobbyist in tailored suit and tie. But advocates for the poor count on the chance that her story may move lawmakers where more polished pitches might fail.

Human stories abound in statehouses as multibillion-dollar budgets are debated, putting real faces to dry number crunching and sometimes blunting lawmakers' attempt to reduce state spending, especially on social programs.

In Mississippi, patients testified about their fears that changes in Medicaid funding could force them to choose between food and medication. In Minnesota, a woman with breast cancer vowed that, if she died as a result of limits to a state health program, she would make sure it happened on the Statehouse steps.

In Ohio, social service advocates rallied people by phone to protest the governor's proposal to reduce Medicaid funding.

"I'm working to try to support my family the best I can and I really don't think targeting single parents by taking away their Medicaid is going to make anything any better," Schnetzer said, shivering slightly on a chilly morning outside the Statehouse during a daylong lobbying trip to Columbus.

Schnetzer, her 10-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, and several other Ohioans on Medicaid or other state assistance visited lawmakers and tried to get an appointment with Gov. Bob Taft.

Schnetzer said she could lose her Medicaid coverage under a Taft proposal to reduce the number of those eligible for the state-federal health care program for poor families and children.

She makes about $13,000 a year between child support, unemployment benefits and a part-time job grading state proficiency tests. Schnetzer, 39, of Blanchester in southwest Ohio, said she pays more than $600 a month in medication to control nerve damage from a spider bite.

Medicaid budget woes

Reducing Medicaid costs is a priority for almost every state and the National Governors Association.

Legislative leaders are bracing for the onslaught of human interest stories and testimony.

"I'm confident that they're going to talk about, 'The sky is falling.' The sky always falls when the budget comes unveiled and you don't get exactly what you want," said House Speaker Jon Husted, a suburban Dayton Republican.

"We have to stop thinking about 'little this' and 'little that' group," he said. "We have to put the broader interests of the state first."

Although the stories are emotional, the process to bring them before lawmakers is often calculated.

The Children's Defense Fund in Texas left fliers in doctors' offices, visited grocery stores and culled names from focus groups to find people willing to talk publicly about proposed cuts to the state's health insurance program for children.

That testimony is critical to changing lawmakers' minds, said Patti Everett, executive director.

"You can spin numbers in lots of different ways -- everybody does that," she said. "What you can't refute are the personal experiences that families tell you."

As soon as Taft's budget plans began to leak out, the University Health Care Action Network called doctors and social workers to find people to testify about proposed cuts, said Cathy Levine, the network's executive director and a veteran lobbyist.

"We've seen legislators tear up when working mothers have talked about the importance of Medicaid and holding their families together," she said.

When word came that Ohio would propose freezing Medicaid payments to hospitals, lobbyists for children's hospitals quickly arranged for Judith Saran to explain how the freeze could jeopardize care for her 10-year-old daughter, Taylor, who was born with spina bifida, in which the spinal column doesn't completely close.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about the families that are on Medicaid, and I'd like to straighten that out," said Saran, of suburban Cleveland. "I want those people who are making the big decisions above us to see that we are people, we're families, we're not a number."

Past success

Two years ago, emotional stories from people relying on Medicaid for dental coverage led lawmakers to kill a proposal to eliminate that coverage. But a similar proposal is being discussed again.

Ohio Senate President Bill Harris said he wants to meet with people like Saran and believes he can convince them that the budget, though tight, is good for the entire state.

"I can sell lots of them, and those that I don't sell, they'll sure know that we had a good conversation, and they'll know why I believe the way I do," said Harris, a Republican from Ashland.

In Mississippi, advocates for the poor rallied against a proposal last year by Gov. Haley Barbour to save $100 million by moving about 50,000 Medicaid recipients to the federal Medicare program.

State Medicaid officials did their best to listen to the horror stories flooding them by phone and e-mail.

"I understand that they're suffering, and it hurts me," said Francis Rullan, a spokesman for the state's Medicaid Division. "But I have to look at how I'm spending the state's money for the greater good for the program, and I have to weigh the benefit for over 700,000 vs. the benefit for around 50,000."

Those stories were important because lawmakers didn't realize the impact of their decisions, said Mary Troupe, executive director of Mississippi's Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities.

"It is a real life, every day, living breathing health issue, for real, living, everyday live people," she said. "It's not just what's on a piece of paper."

Statehouse pledge

Sheila Hart, 63, made her Statehouse steps death pledge after Minnesota capped outpatient care costs at $5,000 in the MinnesotaCare program two years ago. She also has testified before lawmakers and sent them hundreds of e-mails and letters.

"Somebody has to do this," said Hart, who estimates she'll hit the $5,000 limit in March. "At some point you have to stand up and say, 'No, this is wrong.'"

At the time the state faced a $4.2 billion deficit. A bill was introduced in January to repeal the cap.

Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum said he has to weigh the concerns of individuals with the effect on the state if the caps were eliminated but taxes were raised to cover the difference.

"Nobody wants to do harm to anyone in life and society, but there's a balance," said Sviggum, a Republican. "You have to cooperate and be balanced in order to do the best interests of the state, if not the best interests of an individual."

Schnetzer gets mixed results on her visit to the Ohio Statehouse. She manages to leave information for several lawmakers but then is asked to leave the building by state troopers because the group she's with doesn't have a permit for an organized event.

They head to Taft's office on the 30th floor of a downtown state office building where they make it as far as a receptionist's desk a few feet from the elevators.

The group asks politely to speak with Taft or an aide. The news that no one is available is not unexpected. They agree to return later.

"I know there needs to be cuts made somewhere but you're talking about the people who are barely able to take care of their families and themselves as it is," Schnetzer said.




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