Disadvantaged Kansans demand expansion of Medicaid amid health crisis

Charles Carney, right, has struggled with access to affordable treatment options amid the pandemic. Carney was among about 40 people who attended a march Tuesday night in Kansas City, Kansas, organized by the Kansas Poor People's Campaign. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Charles Carney has seen firsthand how disadvantaged Kansans have struggled with access to health care, especially amid the pandemic.

Carney, a recovering alcoholic, said those in recovery often face a difficult choice between overpriced treatment options or trouble with law enforcement.

“We ask for beds and health care and, instead, we get jail cells. We ask for policies of prevention and, instead, we get criminalization and punishment,” Carney said. “We demand better treatment policies and health care for us in recovery.”

Carney was part of a crowd of about 40 who gathered Tuesday in Kansas City, Kansas, to demand the expansion of Medicaid in Kansas at a march and rally organized by the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign.

The Poor People’s Campaign is a nationwide revival of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s 1968 movement to unite and uplift poor and impacted communities across the nation. The campaign is focused on confronting systemic racism, poverty and health care, among other issues.

Those in attendance marched about a mile from Wyandotte County to Johnson County to demonstrate health disparities between marginalized and privileged communities. About 16.5% of people in Wyandotte County are uninsured, more than twice the rate of their northern neighbors.

Across the entire state, 10.1%, or 234,000 people, are uninsured.

Letiah Fraser, a tri-chair for the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign, said conditions have been especially bad in the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted these communities that already lacked access to health services.

That is why the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign joined with organizations in 13 states for a series of “Medicaid marches” this week, Fraser said.

These marches are coordinated by the Nonviolent Medicaid Army, a newly formed advocacy group for the poor and dispossessed, modeled after the “nonviolent army of the poor” of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

The group seeks to denounce the government’s response to COVID-19 and promote the importance of universal health care.

Republican leadership in the Kansas Legislature have blocked expansion of Medicaid in Kansas, which could provide health care coverage for an additional 130,000 low-income adults and their children.

“We demand Medicaid expansion in Kansas,” Fraser said. “We demand the forgiveness of all health-related bills during this crisis. We demand that medical care be provided at low or no cost and we demand the continuity of treatment for any medical condition.”

Additional demands made include widely accessible, free COVID-19 testing for all and PPE for every frontline worker.

Claire Chadwick, another tri-chair for the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign, emphasized the importance of health care but said it is part of a larger web of issues that need to be addressed.

“People who are on or excluded from Medicaid represent the diversity of the entire working class,” Chadwick said. “We’re marching to connect the dots between all the issues we face — from health care and housing to incarceration and detention.”

Chadwick said the organization plans to hold a second Medicaid march and rally Saturday in Pittsburg.