Opinion: The COVID-19 pandemic shows why South Carolina needs to expand Medicaid coverage

Link: https://www.thestate.com/opinion/article241999041.html

Over the past several weeks our state has been forced to grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic. This contagion has exposed the glaring gaps in health care access within South Carolina between the haves and have-nots.

I represent a diverse, densely populated and fast-growing district in Richland County. My community has the highest numbers of identified and projected COVID-19 cases in Richland County — and they are among the highest in South Carolina.

This is alarming but not surprising.

Ever since I was elected to the General Assembly in 2018, I have been puzzled by our state leaders’ reluctance to approve expanding Medicaid in South Carolina. Why would a state that has so many health disparities and poverty-stricken communities refuse federal finding that could provide health care coverage to more of its citizens?

This question has led me to author bills calling for Medicaid expansion in South Carolina; unfortunately, they have languished in committee during this legislative session. However, I am determined to fight on because I know that if we do not act, too many of our vulnerable citizens may die because they lack health care.

In our state Medicaid expansion would have the greatest impact on those whose incomes fall below 138 percent of the federal poverty level ($17,000 or less a year). And many of the beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion in South Carolina would be the often-overlooked “essential” workers who are risking their lives daily during this pandemic.

Over the past decade there has been an uptick in Medicaid coverage across our state largely because of an increase in coverage for children. This represents significant progress, but we must do more to cover adults who fall into coverage gaps.

While many critics say that South Carolina can’t afford to expand Medicaid, study after study has shown that we would greatly benefit from doing so.

It’s estimated that over the next 10 years, South Carolina will leave $14.2 billion in federal dollars on the table by not expanding Medicaid — money that will instead be distributed to states that have expanded coverage. In addition it’s estimated that some 312,000 South Carolinians could be covered over the next 10 years, and that at least 200 lives could be saved.

The extent of COVID-19 in South Carolina has yet to be fully realized, but we’ve already seen seen a troubling trend that it is disproportionately killing people of color. As a state we must examine the effects of poverty-induced health care disparities — and we must realize that many of these issues could be remedied by expanding Medicaid.

Our inability to expand Medicaid has kept many South Carolinians from getting affordable, quality health care that could address the underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 (and dying from it).

It shouldn’t take a pandemic for our state leaders to realize the importance of providing health care for all South Carolinians. It is time for our state to expand Medicaid.

A Democrat, state Rep. Kambrell Garvin represents House District 77.