FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Earlier this month Kentucky lawmakers Dan Seum and Rocky Adkins – both cancer survivors – spoke at a news conference advocating for an extra $1 million to expand a state colon cancer screening program.
“I’m looking forward to hanging on to that extra million dollars,” Seum told reporters as Adkins smiled in the background.
But no one was smiling Thursday as Seum, the GOP Senate Caucus chairman, and Adkins, the House Democratic floor leader, sat on opposite sides of a conference table in an emotionally-charged meeting, fighting over that money. Seum supported the position of the Republican-controlled Senate, which removed the money from the budget, while Adkins pressed to keep it.
Senate Republican leaders argued the state money is unnecessary, now that the federal Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans and Medicaid to cover colon cancer screenings. But House Democrats said it’s too early to end the state program, pointing out that only about half of the roughly 600,000 uninsured Kentuckians have signed up for insurance through the state health insurance exchange.
The fight illustrates how even a seemingly safe issue like cancer screenings can get caught up in the partisan political storm that has been brewing in Kentucky’s statehouse since January. Republicans, who already control the state Senate, need to win just five seats to take control of the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century. And they have repeatedly tried to force House Democrats into votes on the Affordable Care Act, which 49 percent of Kentuckians want repealed, according to a recent poll.
“My feeling is when we get down to closing argument here, Obamacare will be shown to be a failure and then we will fund (the screenings),” Seum said. “They’re going to have to admit that it’s not working.”
Punctuating the debate were the personal stories of lawmakers on both sides whose lives were changed by cancer. Seum was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago at age 72.
Adkins got emotional as he talked about his own battle with cancer 19 years ago at the age of 35.
“This disease discriminates against no one,” he said. “We need to take every step we can and do what we need to do to continue the prevention I think we have gained over the last few years.”
Colon cancer has hit Kentucky particularly hard. From 2005 to 2009, Kentucky had the highest colon cancer rate in the country. The state’s colon cancer mortality rate was the fourth highest, according to Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, himself a cancer survivor.
In 2008, the legislature approved a colon cancer screening program for the uninsured. By 2011, the state’s colon cancer rate had dropped 12 percent while its mortality rate has fallen 16 percent, Beshear said at a news conference earlier this month.
“I need all of us to advocate very loudly and passionately that this be in the budget,” Beshear said.
Under the federal health care law, people have until March 31 to sign up for health insurance either through Kentucky’s Medicaid program or its state health exchange. The question, Senate President Robert Stivers said, is how many people will miss that deadline and end up with no coverage.
“If they want to tell us the system is not going to work and pick up those people, then we may have a different discussion,” said Stivers, whose mother died from colon cancer four years ago. “But that is not what the premise of Obamacare is founded on.”
House Democrats countered there’s still a need for state-backed screening programs for ovarian, breast and colon cancer until it’s known how many Kentuckians have enrolled in health insurance coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.
“To just take this money away without having that assurance, it’s a safety net that you put a big hole in,” said Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown.
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