Amid pandemic, advocacy group wants Wolf, Legislature to extend Medicaid to all

(Capital-Star photo by Lauren Manelius)

LANCASTER, Pa. – A statewide advocacy organization is calling on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly to expand Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program to cover all state residents and to create a new agency that would help residents reverse over-billing and denied claims by health insurance companies.

The group, Put People First! PA held marches in seven cities across the state last week. Organizers argue that the ripple effects of the pandemic — particularly job and therefore health coverage loss — warrant an application for a federal waiver to expand Medicaid to all of the commonwealth’s residents.

“We’re very concerned the upcoming state budget will even include cuts to Medicaid,” PPF-PA co-organizer Tammy Rojas told the Capital-Star.

At a march on Saturday in Lancaster, about two dozen people protested around the site of the former UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster hospital, which closed in February 2019. UPMC had purchased the facility, then Lancaster Regional Medical Center, in 2017. It’s also commonly referred to as “St. Joe’s” by local residents, as it was founded by the Catholic Church in 1878 as St. Joseph’s Hospital. 

The closing was met with public concern about the loss of healthcare services for the region, which was renewed by PPF-PA in September when Lancaster City Council unanimously approved UPMC’s request to rezone the site. UPMC had reached an agreement in July to sell the site to Washington Place Equities and HDC MidAtlantic, which plan to convert the site into a mixture of apartments, townhouses, and retail and office spaces. The site needed rezoning approval for UPMC to proceed with the sale.

(Capital-Star photo by Lauren Manelius)

Rojas told protesters that the fate of the hospital was decided by “healthcare profiteers” who don’t have the public’s interest in mind.

“It’s hurtful when City Council claims itself as progressive and diverse, then unanimously voted yes to rezone St. Joseph’s. They had power, they could’ve held UPMC’s feet to the fire,” said Rojas. 

The group wants Wolf, the Legislature, and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District, who represents Lancaster on Capitol Hill to enact the policies outlined in the Jubilee Platform of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, a nationwide association of local advocacy organizations advocating policy changes surrounding issues such as systemic racism, gentrification, and militarism.

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“We’re here to unite the poor against all lines of division,” Terrell Turner, a coordinator with PPF-PA, told the Capital-Star.  “Healthcare is interconnected with almost every other issue. Everything else in life depends on how you’re doing mentally and physically.”

The office the group wants Wolf and lawmakers to create, the state Public Healthcare Advocate, would “provide direct assistance to Pennsylvanians who face barriers to healthcare and would provide information to lawmakers to better understand and improve the state’s healthcare system,” PPF-PA says on its website

The office would include staff to help citizens make sense of health insurance plans, and navigate rules and appeals processes.

“Patients’ coverage on different insurance plans is extremely complicated, creating confusion for patients and costly administration for medical providers,” PPF-PA said, adding that it’s working with other organizations to find a sponsor for a bill to create the office, modeled after Connecticut’s Office of the Healthcare Advocate.

Rojas told the Capital-Star the group met with state House Speaker Bryan Cutler, and Sen. Scott Martin, both Lancaster County Republicans, and that both said they would support a bill creating the office, especially after learning it could save the state tens of millions of dollars per year related to fraudulent charges. 

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The group released an additional list of eight “demands” specific to the Lancaster region for various public officials and entities, centered around healthcare, poverty, and law enforcement. 

In a point addressed to Penn Medicine, the group wrote: “Since you are a nonprofit charity, one of the largest property owners in Lancaster County, and a part of the Coalition to End Homelessness, we demand you stop selling off healthcare-related property and we demand you work to create homeless shelters and transitional housing throughout Lancaster County.”

In another, it calls on Lancaster County government officials to “remove the aggressive architecture in and around Binn’s Park” that’s meant to deter homeless people, and to establish a public health department, and to “attend and be prepared to respond to questions and concerns at a public meeting… to discuss healthcare, poverty, and all the interconnected issues of state violence.”

Correspondent Lauren Manelius covers Lancaster County for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @El_Manels