Medicaid petition drive launched; Larson charge pipeline opponents got Russian money denied

March 9, 2018, 5:03 a.m. ·

Sen. Adam Morfeld speaks before Medicaid expansion supporters (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Supporters of expanding Medicaid in Nebraska announced Friday they are launching an initiative petition drive to put the idea on the November ballot. The Legislature began debating making more mental health counselors available to students and families. And Sen. Tyson Larson accused the group Bold Nebraska of getting money from Russia to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, a charge Bold Nebraska founder Jane Kleeb denied.

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As a result of the Affordable Care Act passed under former President Barack Obama, states have the option of insuring more low income residents under Medicaid. So far, 32 states and the District of Columbia have done so, but the idea has been blocked in the Nebraska Legislature. Advocates say about 90,000 more low-income Nebraskans could be covered if the state expands Medicaid.

Speaking at a Capitol rotunda news conference Sen. Adam Morfeld invoked “the people,” sometimes referred to as the “second house” for Nebraska’s one-house Unicameral. “Too many Nebraskans, in spite of working hard – many of them more than one job – cannot afford health care or get the health care they need to be successful and to be healthy. It’s time that we listened to the ‘second house’ of the Legislature, because the first isn’t getting it done,” Morfeld said.

Opponents of Medicaid expansion argue the state’s share will be too expensive, diverting tax money away from other needs like education and roads. The program is 90 percent federally funded, and the state Department of Health and Human Services projects over a 10-year period, Medicaid expansion would bring in over $8 billion in federal money, while the state’s share would be over $850 million.

Morfeld said the state’s expenditure would be worthwhile. “The bottom line is that yes, it’s going to cost a little bit of money to insure people. But it’s costing us more money not having them insured. It’s costing us more money to see our premiums go up. It’s costing us more money to be able to work with people in the ER (emergency room) when we could be providing preventative care, and we could be doing it at a much cheaper rate,” he said.

If the proposal gets on the ballot and is approved, it would expand Medicaid coverage to households with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s about $16,000 for an individual, or $35,000 for a family of four. The campaign organization, Insure The Good Life, made up of health care and low-income advocacy groups, would need to collect about 85,000 signatures by July 6 to make it on the ballot.

In the Legislature Friday, lawmakers began debating a bill by Sen. Lynne Walz that would place a social worker in each of the state’s 17 educational service units to deal with mental health issues. Walz has said the recent school shooting in Florida underscores the need for such help. She read a letter from an Omaha special education teacher describing students with problems, including a girl often absent from school. “When she was in attendance, we had to be vigilant about putting up anything that she could use to self-harm herself. If she spotted a loose staple on the floor, she would use it to harm herself. Another student that I had could not use the restroom or locker room when peers were in there, because of his tendency to become sexually aroused and act upon his arousal. He also killed his pet hamster,” Walz read. “Each year I have several students on my caseload who would benefit from consistent and effective mental health support. It’s just not available.”

Walz’ proposal contains no funding, but says the program would not start until it obtained $3.6 million in private funding to cover its first three years, after which tax funds could be used. Walz said private funding is being sought, but declined to say who she thinks might provide it. The Legislature adjourned without reaching a vote on her bill, which is expected to come up again next week.

Also in floor debate Friday, Sen. Tyson Larson used a routine appointment to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission as an opportunity to criticize environmental groups opposed to developing the U.S. energy infrastructure. Larson said Russian bots and agents were working to support those groups. “They purposely planted information on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media organizations, trying to divide and specifically supporting people that were opposing DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline), Keystone XL and the Enbridge pipeline; and they funneled money to some of the groups that were fighting it, including the one that is run by the Democrat state chair, Jane Kleeb: Bold Nebraska,” Larson said.

Kleeb said Bold has never taken any money from the Russians, adding it was “disgusting” Larson and national Republicans were trying to distract from Russian meddling in U.S. elections. “Show me any evidence that Bold Nebraska has ever taken Russian money. Otherwise, an apology on the floor to Bold, as well as all the farmers and ranchers who have given up the last 10 years of their life to make sure that their property rights and water are protected, is certainly warranted from Sen. Larson,” Kleeb said.

Larson cited an article in the Financial Post, part of Canada’s National Post newspaper, that said Russia-sponsored agents funded U.S. enrivonmental organizations, including Bold Nebraska. The newspaper in turn cited a March 1 report by the Republican majority staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Russian attempts to influence U.S. domestic energy markets through social media.(To see the Financial Post article, click here).

That report contains no mention of any Russian payments to Bold Nebraska. (To see the House committee staff report, click here).