In the last two weeks, some major developments have rekindled hope for hundreds of thousands of Southerners left in the coverage gap. Since a disproportionate number of people in the coverage gap, 90 percent, live and work in the South, any cause for hope would be welcomed. A key vote in Alabama and a new governor in Louisiana have set the stage for an action-packed 2016 legislative session where closing the coverage gap and ensuring health care for those that need it most may take center stage. With cautious optimism, advocates will be watching closely to see how conversations unfold in Alabama and Louisiana and hope to use this momentum in their own campaigns.
Two weeks ago in Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley’s Health Care Improvement Task Force voted unanimously to “move forward at the earliest opportunity to close Alabama’s health coverage gap with an Alabama-driven solution.” The 38-member task force, charged with offering recommendations on how to increase access to health care in rural Alabama, included doctors, medical school leaders, hospital administrators, insurance executives, nurses, state agency leaders, legislators and other stakeholders. The task force’s recommendation included a two-page white paper detailing some of the specific benefits of accepting the federal funds such as providing many hard-working Alabamians with coverage while boosting the state economy and helping struggling rural hospitals. While Gov. Bentley has not gone as far as saying he will close the coverage gap, in recent weeks he has softened his stance. The hope is that he takes these recommendations back to the legislature and together they come up with an Alabama solution for the 290,000 Alabamians who could benefit from new coverage options.
Meanwhile in Louisiana, a hotly contested gubernatorial race found all candidates agreeing on one thing: the need to address the coverage gap. Though candidates differed on their approach in reaching that goal, heading into the general election all candidates had voiced support for some solution to the coverage gap problem. After a run-off election on November 21, residents of Louisiana elected Representative John Bel Edwards (D) as their new governor. Edwards had publicly stated that he would use his executive authority to expand Medicaid. While not yet a done deal, there is great cause for hope that Louisiana will soon join the ranks of those offering expanded coverage.
Taken individually, these advancements are significant within their states, for their working families, struggling hospitals and local economies. Taken together, we can only hope this is the start of a trend wherein Southern states, increasingly concerned about budgets and local economies, as well as their citizens, adopt a solution for the coverage gap that draws down federal dollars while providing health care to those that need it most. There is hope.