Ky. voices: Expand Medicaid to give Kentuckians with cancer a better chance

By James Sharp

This year in Kentucky, an estimated 25,100 people will be diagnosed with cancer, and another 9,970 will die of the disease. People without health insurance coverage are more likely to be diagnosed with late stage cancer, when patients are less likely to survive and treatments are more costly. Uninsured cancer patients are nearly twice as likely to die within five years as those with private coverage.

Right now, Gov. Steve Beshear has an opportunity to help reduce the cancer burden in Kentucky. Federal funds are available to increase access to health coverage through the state's Medicaid program. Beshear has been wrestling with the decision of whether to make health coverage under Medicaid available to individuals and families up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,657 for a family of four), as urged by the Affordable Care Act.

If Beshear makes the right choice and extends lifesaving health coverage, some 268,000 hard-working, low-income Kentuckians who currently cannot afford lifesaving care will have the security of knowing they have access to proven cancer screenings and treatments.

If Kentucky accepts the federal funds, this population will be able to see a doctor regularly; access preventive services such as Pap tests, mammograms and smoking cessation aids, and avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency room. Access to these critical services enhances the likelihood of detecting cancer at an earlier and more curable stage that is less expensive to treat.

Studies show that people with Medicaid coverage receive life-saving preventive screenings at higher rates than the uninsured and close to the same rate of those enrolled in private insurance. For example, more than half (56 percent) of women aged 40 to 64 enrolled in Medicaid received a mammogram in the past two years, compared to 38 percent of uninsured women and 56 percent of insured women in the same age range.

Kentucky continues to face significant budget challenges. Accepting federal funds and increasing access to the Medicaid program will save the state money. Under the health law, federal funds will pay 100 percent of the costs to provide health coverage to low-income people and families, and, beginning in 2020, no less than 90 percent. By accepting the money, Kentucky can reduce the number of uninsured and save millions of taxpayer dollars that are currently spent to treat people in emergency rooms.

Recent polling commissioned by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network shows that, by a 40-point margin, Kentucky voters want the state to accept federal funds to provide more uninsured adults with health coverage through its Medicaid program (63 percent vs. 23 percent). The results also showed that 49 percent of voters polled have a close friend or family member who is uninsured, demonstrating that people have a personal interest in increasing access to affordable health coverage.

Beshear needs to reach a decision on whether to expand Medicaid coverage, since further delays could result in the state losing significant federal funds that could create jobs and improve health care among its most vulnerable communities. The public supports it and an increasing number of states are already taking advantage of this opportunity. It does not make sense to turn down money that is already available to help Kentuckians and save lives.

I urge the governor to accept the federal dollars already allocated for Kentucky, increase access to care for low-income individuals and families and be a leader in the fight against cancer.

James Sharp is Kentucky government relations director for the American Cancer Society Action Network, Inc. in Lexington.