COLUMBIA, S.C. — Democrats plan to renew efforts next year to expand Medicaid eligibility in South Carolina, saying that’s the most important way to continue the work of their slain colleague, Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
It will be a tough sell in a state where Republican opposition hasn’t budged since a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the federal health care law but made its intended Medicaid expansion an option. But Democrats hope the Legislature’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds — a move long thought impossible — indicates opinions can change.
Thirty states have expanded Medicaid, or plan to do so, to include all adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, currently $16,243 for an individual. More than a dozen have seen enrollments surge way beyond projections, causing some lawmakers concern the added costs will strain their budgets when federal aid begins to scale back in two years.
Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, said extending Medicaid coverage to an estimated 200,000 poor adults will benefit the state in a tangible, rather than symbolic, way, while enacting a top priority of Pinckney’s.
“If you want to continue the work of Sen. Pinckney and the interests he cared most about, this issue is second to none,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia.
Pinckney, of Ridgeland, was among the nine victims of last month’s massacre at the historic black church in Charleston he pastored. The Senate district he represented for the last 15 years spans some of South Carolina’s poorest areas.
“Although the flag was an atrocious symbol, he and I rarely had a conversation about the flag. What we had a lot of conversations about was health care,” said Jackson, pastor of one of the state’s largest black churches. “It was so necessary to get the flag down because it was a symbol of something that divides us, but when it’s all said and done, it doesn’t improve the quality of life of one South Carolinian.”
Democrats hope Gov. Nikki Haley makes a reversal on Medicaid, much like when she called for the flag to come down.
“I appreciate all of her newfound attention to symbolism,” Jackson said. “What would really be a courageous stand would be to sign Medicaid expansion.”
Haley’s spokeswoman, however, made clear the governor’s position has not wavered.
The governor always admired Pinckney, said spokeswoman Chaney Adams. “But in South Carolina, Obamacare has been bad for our families, bad for our economy and bad for our businesses, and we will continue to work around it as best we can.”
It’s unclear whether the idea will even be substantially debated next year, when visits by 2016 Republican presidential candidates to this early-voting state become even more frequent. Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, said their presence will only solidify opposition.
Republican leaders in both chambers said it comes down to money, and events over the past month have not changed their position the state can’t afford it. Subcommittee leaders seem reluctant event to take it up.
“While Pinckney was a great friend of mine, it was an area where we disagreed,” said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, who leads Senate Finance’s health care panel. Pinckney was one of its members.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said South Carolina can’t continue to turn its nose to the potential tens of thousands of additional health care jobs and economic activity they would bring.
The expansion’s time has come, he said, adding that he believes Pinckney would not want the effort to be in his name.
“He was doing that for the people of South Carolina, white and black, who would benefit from Medicaid expansion,” Rutherford said.