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The Poorest And The Sickest

It’s funny what makes the news these days.

On Friday, I went to a Medicaid Concept Coverage public meeting at the Balloon Museum in Albuquerque.

Several hundred people came there to hear New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary Pam Hyde explain what’s going on with the Medicaid program, which faces a projected $300 million or more shortfall for FY 2011.  The meeting was one of a series of hearings the department is holding across the state through Dec. 18.  (To read about possible changes, visit the department’s site and click on the Medicaid Concept Paper under “What’s New.”)

At Friday’s meeting, the HHS laid out some grim statistics.

  • Approximately 23 percent of all state residents – some 452,800 people – are uninsured.
  • New Mexico ranks second in the percentage of the highest number of uninsured in the nation, followed only by Texas.
  • Uncompensated care for the uninsured costs New Mexico $335 million annually.

Hyde then told people she wanted to hear their comments about which services they think they can’t live without – and which they could recommend be cut.

First let me say it’s commendable that the state department is taking great pains to meet with New Mexicans to explain what changes may be coming.

But I do have a few observations about the whole affair.

First of all, where was the media? I saw only one television crew there, from KRQE – they covered the heck out of it, but still – only one?  No newspapers or other media?  Is the specter of cuts to thousands of the state’s most medically-fragile citizens just not newsy enough?

Because that’s what we are talking about here. I sat for two hours and listened to parents and caregivers cram their heartbreaking life stories into two-minute chunks.

On the one hand, what they related were nightmarish situations none of us would wish for. On the other hand, their tales of woe are obviously way too common.

We heard from a mother who’s been struggling to provide care for a severely-impaired daughter and is looking at a 15-year waiting list for state help. We heard from a UNM professor who is looking for the proper care for his medically-fragile child, who was kicked off the university’s health plan once she became an adult.  We heard from a mom who lost healthcare coverage for her young children after her husband died suddenly.

The stories made it clear that NONE of the state-provided services currently on the chopping block are optional.  ALL of them are a matter of life and death for the people who receive them, and their families.

The other observation I  – and others who spoke at the meeting had is  – why does it have to be this way?

It there not something ghastly about making a parade of the state’s most needy and fragile residents and their advocates beg for the very services that will keep them alive…or alive and with some modicum of happiness?

And what is going to be the state’s official position on increasing revenues to try to fund these services?  Several speakers noted that the state of New Mexico has given away millions in tax cuts and exemptions to some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations doing business in the state – while asking the poorest and sickest New Mexicans to cut back.

Will the call to reverse those measures be heard when the legislature convenes in January to hammer out ways to close a shortfall that, in total, approaches $579 million?

I guess that it’s not really news that people are struggling these days. But the day that we officially stop caring about our sickest and most helpless fellow New Mexicans is a day I will  dread.

“It is all too easy for a society to measure itself against some abstract philosophical principle or political slogan. But in the end, there must remain the question: What kind of life is one society providing to the people that live in it?”

Hubert H. Humphrey, 1966

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