ST. LOUIS (AP) - The Obama administration's top health official came to Missouri on Thursday to tout new insurance benefits available under the president's signature Affordable Care Act - and to renew the call for Medicaid expansion in one of the nearly two dozen states to reject the federal government's plan to broaden the insurance program for the poor.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius met with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and more than a dozen community leaders at City Hall. The former Kansas governor, who resigned in 2009 to join the president's Cabinet, is scheduled to make a similar appearance in Kansas City on Friday. In recent days, she's visited Florida, New Jersey and other states as the Oct. 1 start of enrollment in private, online health insurance exchanges approaches.
"There's a great opportunity as marketplaces open in Missouri and across the county for affordable health coverage," she said. "We also want to continue the conversation with the governor's help and with the Missouri Legislature about Medicaid expansion. ... There are billions of dollars of federal assistance to expand Medicaid here in Missouri that would be unspent. But county tax dollars would continue to be spent on issues like uncompensated care at hospitals, and unproductive workers in the workforce."
State lawmakers repeatedly rejected such a move in the 2013 legislative session, fearful that the promised federal subsidies for Medicaid would eventually evaporate. The criticism continued on Thursday, with Missouri Republican Party Chairman Ed Martin calling Sebelius' "secret meeting ... the epitome of the problem a majority of Americans have with Obamacare."
"We were told Congress had to pass it to see what was in it; we were told we were going to be able to keep our doctors and we were told the cost of health care would decrease," he added. "We have learned the truth, and those promises have been broken. As it turns out, this is just an added burden to taxpayers."
In Missouri, the insurance exchange will be operated by the federal government. State lawmakers and then voters rejected a state-run system. While general information about coverage plans and tax credits has been released, the specifics on premium costs, deductibles and other details remain unknown.
St. Louis Health Director Pam Walker, a meeting participant, said Sebelius told the group to expect insurance exchange premium costs to be released on Sept. 30 - one day before the marketplace opens. The enrollment period extends through March 31, 2014, with coverage starting as soon as Jan. 1 provided registration takes place by mid-December.
Walker joined the chorus advocating Medicaid expansion in Missouri. A federal program that provides St. Louis with $25 million annually to help cover urgent and primary care - but not hospitalizations or mental health treatment - for 25,000 uninsured city residents is due to expire in December, though she expects the city to receive a one-year extension of the Medicaid waiver.
"It's a Band-Aid to keep the safety net in place until our Legislature does the right thing and the smart thing," she said.
Related video series:
KTVI-TV, St. Louis, recently aired this Health Care Primer on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), linked below.