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National Tea Party Group Gives $20,000 to Backers of Anti-Medicaid Expansion

Alex Constantine - September 5, 2013

A national “tea party” group Friday gave $20,000 to organizers of a referendum drive seeking to put Medicaid expansion on the 2014 ballot.

The Tea Party Patriots’ contribution was a boost as petition gatherers head into the final days before a Sept. 11 deadline to submit 86,405 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office. But it’s a pittance compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that pro-Medicaid forces have raised and spent to thwart the referendum.

Tea-party groups and conservative GOP members are the backbone of the anti-expansion effort, which until now has had no significant outside funding. Organizers say they'll decide how to spend the money in the next few days, but it likely will go toward paid petition circulators, robocalls or advertising.

Bill Norton, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots who lives in Phoenix, said he proposed the donation to the referendum group, United Republican Alliance of Principled Conservatives. The anti-expansion effort aligns with a primary objective of the national group — wiping out the Affordable Care Act, which includes funding to help states provide health insurance to more low-income people.

“This is part of that battle to inform the public of how destructive socialized medicine is going to be,” Norton said. “Arizona is at the forefront of that fight.”

The Georgia-based Tea Party Patriots, which claims thousands of chapters around the country, is perhaps best known for organizing opposition at health-care town halls during the summer of 2009.

Arizona is one of 24 states that has agreed to accept federal money from the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid coverage to everyone earning less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Gov. Jan Brewer and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers approved Medicaid expansion in a June special session, infuriating conservatives who launched the petition drive days later.

Key supporters of Medicaid expansion include the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and the health-care industry, which have ponied up several hundred thousand dollars in the past two months to pay for marketing, polling, lobbying and a competing petition drive that, though it has no legal impact, is intended to show broad support for expansion.

Anti-expansion referendum organizers have refused to say how many signatures they’ve collected so far, but e-mails and other materials show they have reduced their goal to 100,000 signatures from 120,000. That would allow an error rate of less than 15 percent, which is a thin margin.

GOP political consultant Chuck Coughlin, who’s working for the pro-expansion Restoring Arizona group, said it’s telling that the referendum effort didn’t draw more national attention and funding.

“It speaks to the narrowness of their approach,” Coughlin said, “and the awareness that ... having this issue on the ballot in the fall of 2014 would be worse for Republicans.”

If the petition drive is successful, and survives several legal challenges, it puts Medicaid expansion on hold until voters can decide the matter in the November 2014 election. In the meantime, roughly 60,000 Arizonans would be kicked off Medicaid on Dec. 31, regardless of their medical condition or treatment plan.

Not only would that lead to enormous human suffering, it would be a political disaster for Republicans in the 2014 elections, Coughlin said.

“It becomes a giant turnout mechanism for the Democrats,” he said. “That just creates a parade of horrors. The heartless Tea Party will be the face of Republicanism.”

Meanwhile, Arizona hospitals continue to see their budgets skyrocket for uncompensated care, which includes treatment of the uninsured or underinsured who cannot pay.

At Dignity Health, which owns three Arizona hospitals including St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, bad debt and charity care has more than doubled since 2011, when Brewer and lawmakers froze enrollment in a Medicaid program that covered childless adults. In fiscal 2013, which ended June 30, the hospitals paid out $82 million in uncompensated care, compared to $36.5 million in 2011.

“This is not a sustainable model for hospitals in Arizona,” said Suzanne Pfister, vice president for external affairs.

“We worked hard on this initiative because there are clearly people who need health care and can’t afford it,” she said. “We believe this is still very much the right thing to do for Arizona.”

Reach the reporter at maryk.reinhart@arizonarepublic.com.

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