Thousands in Ohio demand Medicaid expansion

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Some 2,500 determined demonstrators packed the statehouse grounds on Friday in Columbus, Ohio, demanding legislators support the expansion of Medicaid proposed under "Obamacare," the Affordable Care Act. The expansion has been supported by Ohio's conservative Republican Governor John Kasich, but it is now being blocked by legislators from his own party.

Enduring a cold, constant rain, the large crowd roared after each speaker; "Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, health care works!"

Representing the wide support for expansion of Medicaid, speakers, as well as supporters at the rally, came from groups as widely diverse as the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Ohio Hospital Association, insurance companies, Ohio Right to Life, as well as national Alliance on Mental Illness, Universal Healthcare Action Network, Organize Ohio, Single Payer Action Network (SPAN), unionists and many individuals facing health care crisis.

Bob Spada, President of the National Alliance for Mental Illness and former Republican state senator urged those present to have faith in their ultimate victory.

"You may have heard we suffered a setback, we don't worry, we are determined," said Spada. "It may take a week or two. Maybe a month! But don't confuse right and left in politics with right and wrong in life. We are right, we are determined and we will win!"

After Ohio Governor Kasich had included Medicaid expansion in his budget, extremist tea party Republicans led a successful effort to strip it from his budget this past week. Under the expansion plan, Medicaid coverage would be expanded to over 366,000 Ohioans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The plan would bring $13 billion into Ohio over the next seven years, resulting in $400 million savings for Ohio taxpayers.

Suzanne Bennett of Columbus explained how the lack of health care affected her and urged legislators to "put people before politics."

"If they just knew us, real people, maybe they'd act differently, compassionately," Bennett said. She stated that she was suffering with a tough form of skin cancer and was unable to obtain coverage. Her business failed, her family fell apart and she is still without health care.

Matt Davis of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce told the crowd that Ohio businesses could face fines of up to $2,000 per employee if the Medicaid expansion doesn't go through, ranging up to $90 million a year for all Ohio Businesses.

Alex Fisher, CEO of Columbus Partnership, a business group, spoke of how Medicaid expansion would cut business costs and that costs of treating the uninsured would be dramatically reduced by the expansion program. He noted that Chambers of Commerce across the state have all lined up behind Medicaid expansion.

Rob Nichols, spokesman for Ohio Governor Kasich ,pointed to wide support for the program.

"Ohio Right to Life, chambers of commerce, hospitals, health care providers as well as the health care reform community are all in support of Medicaid expansion. It will bring millions of dollars to our state, spare the hospitals devastating cuts and it will help vulnerable Ohioans live better lives because they won't have to worry about having health care coverage."

Closing out the rally, Rev. Tim Ahrens, pastor of the First Congregational Church, led a group of 28 religious leaders of various faiths to the stage.

"Every one of our faith traditions have taught us the same lessons, that morality in any society is judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. It troubles me, no it angers me," Ahrens stated, "that 20 extremists in the Ohio House stand in the way of us being able to have health care for the poor, the needy, those who cannot obtain it any other way!"

Leaving the rally, Kathleen Gmeiner, project director for Universal Health Care Action Network, UHCAN, stated that she was "literally bowled over at the width and breath of the movement to gain health care in Ohio. We never would've seen this type of rally before," she said. "They can stand in the way, but if they do, they'll get rolled over!"

Photo: A demonstrator shows his support for Medicaid expansion in a protest outside the Ohio Statehouse on April 11. Jay LePrete/AP

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