Medicaid debate sparks passion among Missouri Baptist lawmakers
By Allen Palmeri
April 13, 2004
JEFFERSON CITY – Southern Baptist members of the Missouri General Assembly on both sides of the Medicaid issue quoted Scripture in floor debate March 17, revealing how passionate Christian lawmakers can be when it comes to helping the poor.
|Rachel Bringer||Brian Baker|
Rep. Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, Rep. Trent Skaggs, D-North Kansas City and Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, all spoke of the importance of following biblical teaching as it concerns Medicaid legislation. All are Missouri Southern Baptists — two on one side of the issue, and two on the other side.
Bearden, who attends First Baptist Church, Harvester, and Baker, assistant pastor and ministry director for First Baptist Church, Belton, voted with the majority in a party-line vote of 88-68 that gave initial House approval to the Medicaid bill.
Skaggs, a deacon at First Baptist Church, North Kansas City, and Bringer, a member of South Union Baptist Church, Maywood, voted with the Democrat minority in what they said was an attempt to defend the poor.
Here is how these Baptist lawmakers differ on the issue:
The Democrat position
Skaggs said the focus of the debate should be on what Jesus meant in Matt. 25:41-46, when the Savior taught that we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked.
“It says we do these things!" Skaggs said.
The Republican bill falls short of this standard, Skaggs argued, because it potentially cuts off about 80,000 people from Medicaid. While Skaggs does not interpret Matthew 25 to mean that government is commanded to take care of the poor, he does believe that both individuals and churches are, and he pleads for individuals in government to heed that teaching.
“They (the Republicans) keep saying it’s not the government’s responsibility, and it’s an individual’s choice, and they’re right, it is an individual’s responsibility and it is a church’s responsibility," Skaggs said. “But I’m an individual, and I have a vote. That’s how I’m going to vote.
“I don’t know how we ever justify cutting children and the poor."
Bringer said Republicans voted to eliminate health care coverage for some women living in poverty expecting a child. In the early 1990s, when coverage was increased for these same women, the number of abortions in Missouri fell by about 1,500, Bringer said.
“I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of health care coverage for expecting mothers," she said. “That is a very dangerous part of this Medicaid reform bill that I believe will result in more abortions in this state than would have been otherwise."
Bringer serves in a rural district, where many working poor people rely on Medicaid.
“A very high percentage of children born in my part of the state, northeast Missouri, are born with Medicaid coverage," Bringer said. “By cutting these Medicaid benefits, we are disproportionately hurting rural Missourians living in poverty.
“It’s a problem that we need to be addressing with a scalpel, and this bill is a chainsaw."
Bringer and Skaggs agree that tens of thousands of Missourians will be affected by the decision of the Republican majority. Skaggs said agencies have gone on record stating it will affect 80,000 lives. When Republicans talk about defending the unborn while enacting policy that trims Medicaid, Skaggs said it is inconsistent.
“It’s very hypocritical to me when on one side they can use the Bible to make their argument on things such as pro-life, but when it comes to things like Medicaid funding and taking care of the poor, all of a sudden the Bible doesn’t fit," Skaggs said. “I mean, Scripture talks about the poor and the hungry over 200 times. That’s what we’re called to do."
Republicans, also concerned with stewardship, said their bill would cut about $110 million in state and federal money from Medicaid. The state savings could be applied to education, Republicans argue. Skaggs and Bringer said there are other ways to raise the money, such as closing corporate tax loopholes, working on economic development and working within the health care community to come up with better options.
“There are items out there structurally that we could do that we have decided to turn a blind eye to," Skaggs said.
The Republican position
Baker said that Baptist Republicans care just as much about helping the poor as Baptist Democrats. The difference comes down to how both parties define the word “poor."
Baker’s philosophy is to prevent those who are not poor from qualifying for Medicaid, based on Proverbs 20:23. Baker believes that diverse weights are an abomination to the Lord, and dishonest scales are not good. He said that describes what Republicans are trying to reform.
“The system we have has created an uneven scale where someone who makes $60,000 a year and has $250,000 in assets is classified as poor," Baker said. “In my district, that’s not poor. My vote was to help the poor."
Bearden, who chairs the House Budget Committee, said Democrats who quoted Scripture on the House floor did so inappropriately.
“They were trying to misapply Scripture to create a moral obligation for the state to be involved in Medicaid," Bearden said. “The Scripture does address that the government needs to be fair in its dealings with people, but when it comes to taking care of the needy, I think the Bible squarely puts that on individuals and churches."
Bearden said Republicans had to do something to rein in Medicaid spending, which consumed only 4 percent of the state budget in 1968 and now takes up 23 percent. Baker said 950,000 Missouri residents out of a total population of 5.5 million are on Medicaid. By comparison, Missouri’s public school system includes about 900,000 students, Baker said.
“As Medicaid continues to grow, because it’s not subject to appropriation, it becomes an entitlement," Bearden said. “That entitlement, then, puts pressure on our budget everywhere. But even more importantly, the more that we do in Medicaid, the more that we stretch our resources, the less likely that people on Medicaid will receive the service that they need."
Baker said only one percent of Medicaid recipients are being cut. His reply to Bringer’s assertion that pregnant women are going to be more likely to abort their babies under the Republican plan is that “pregnant women are still covered." His overall argument is to focus the debate on what poor is.
“No one from the other side of the aisle wants to talk about the definition of poor," Baker said. “They just automatically revert to, ‘You’re hurting kids.’
“Are we really cutting the poor?" he asked. “Is someone who’s making $60,000 a year and has $250,000 in assets poor? If that’s poor, then I qualify for Medicaid, four of my assistant pastors qualify for Medicaid and over half my church qualifies for Medicaid. I have not found anyone in the churches or groups I visit in my district who feels that anyone who makes $60,000 a year and has $250,000 in assets should be classified as poor."
The future debate
In the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority, the position articulated by Bearden and Baker is expected to prevail. Republicans are determined to narrow the focus of Medicaid by fixing the “uneven scale" of the system. Democrats, led by Gov. Bob Holden, are calling the Republican reforms excessive, but Republican gubernatorial candidate, Matt Blunt, agrees with the spirit in the General Assembly.
The 88-68 vote in the House was the first along party lines this session. There are 90 Republicans and 73 Democrats in the House.
“We’re looking out for everybody," Bearden said. “The Democrats forget that there are at least two parties to this deal. One is the people who really need the services, and we’re trying to protect them. And then we also have to look out for the people who are paying the bills. They’re also a part of the equation, but oftentimes, the Democrats forget that part."
Baker said that Republicans in the Senate, should they follow the lead of the House and push the bill through on a party-line vote, would be voting for education. Savings that could be applied to fund schools ultimately could amount to $50-75 million, Republicans said.
“This welfare reform legislation enacts common sense reforms aimed at stemming the growth in optional services so that funding for our public schools can be protected," Baker said.
Bringer’s response is to ask the question: At what cost?
“Missouri is in a terrible budget situation, but it’s not fair to make the most vulnerable citizens of this state pay for our budget crisis," she said. “This bill attacks the most vulnerable people in our state—people who need health care, who are living in poverty, who are disabled, who are senior citizens or who are children."