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Expansions Possible For Medicare/Medicaid As Programs Mark Anniversaries

Nine people stand in a room holding signs.
Tom Flanigan
Retiree advocates brought a birthday cake to Tallahassee City Hall in honor of the Medicare/Medicaid anniversaries

For more than a half-century, the Medicare program has provided healthcare coverage for America's retirees. Now, an effort is underway to expand both Medicare and the Medicaid program for low-income Americans. That was part of a gala celebration on Friday, July 30th in Tallahassee:

"Today is the 56th birthday of Medicare and Medicaid."

That statement was made by Barbara Devane. A longtime lobbyist, organizer and advocate, and a persistent presence at the State Capitol. On this particular day, she wore a tee-shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans. She and a small group of other Alliance members were at Tallahassee City Hall, not only to mark the Medicare anniversary, but also to note that Congress is working up a budget that could expand the program.

"And then they will come forth in the fall with a reconciliation bill and we are very optimistic that we'll be in it and it will bring down the price of prescription drugs in Medicare," DeVane noted.

Because the current inability of Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies is what concerns retirees the most. Gloria Smith, a retired teacher told the tragic story of what happened to her husband a few years ago when he came down with cancer.

"The medication was $3,000 a month for 30 pills for him to survive on."

With no way to afford that cost, Smith explained all they could do was take part in a clinical trial with a different medication.

"He ended up dying a year later after taking that drug instead of taking the drug he really needed that we could not afford."

Teresa Wells also suffered pharmaceutical sticker shock. As a COPD patient, she thought Medicare would pay for her medication.

"I got on Medicare; I got my Part D for my prescription drugs. And lo and behold, I found out that to slow the progression of this thing is going to cost me $400 a month with insurance."

Dave Jacobsen, who's a longtime advocate for State of Florida retirees, said stories like those told by Gloria Smith and Teresa Wells are common all over the state and nation.

"Everyone in America, no matter where they live, what they look like, or their income, should have access to affordable prescription drugs to stay healthy and to take care of their families."

So, groups like the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans plan to keep the pressure on Congress to give Medicare the legal ability to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. But there is one more healthcare matter of concern for these groups. During the week of July 26, the State Supreme Court in Missouri cleared the way for that state's voters to cast ballots on Medicaid expansion. Like Florida, lawmakers in Missouri have denied that expansion since the Obama Administration. The Alliance's Barbara Devane said a similar effort is pending in Florida.

"We are going to have a petition drive to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot because the Republicans won't do it, the people can do it. The people have the power to do it. The question is, are we going to try to do it in 2022, or wait until 2024?"

But it may be circumstances outside of politics that drive the issue. With a resurgent pandemic underway, major polls show that a significant majority of Floridians, regardless of party, seem to favor greater access to affordable healthcare.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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