CHEYENNE - Candidates for governor tried to sway Cheyenne voters during a forum Thursday night that centered heavily on access to, and the affordability of, health care.
The moderated question and answer session featured the entire slate of candidates trying to take over for current Gov. Matt Mead, who is term limited. Republican Mark Gordon, Democrat Mary Throne, Constitution Party's Rex Rammell and Libertarian Lawrence Struempf were all in attendance for the moderated question-and-answer session hosted by Wyoming Alliance, Wyoming Epilepsy Association and WYSAIL.
How each candidate would increase access to health care while bringing down costs ended up being a major focus of the session. And that topic easily bled into discussions on how the state should diversify its economy, so it could afford services like health care and education it now has trouble funding in the current budget climate.
While all four candidates agreed on the need to address the issue of rising health-care costs and the portion of the state's population that is uninsured, how they proposed going about doing it is where the four split ways.
Gordon, the current state Treasurer, was against any expansion of Medicaid as a way to increase access to health care.
The future cost to Wyoming for expanding the program would put even further strain on a state budget that already is feeling the pinch from decreasing revenues, Gordon said.
"Trying to cover up a particular problem by providing more money to solve a problem that has no limits on the cost is not going to adjust the problem," Gordon said. "One of the things we really need to concentrate on is making sure that our costs that are charged are absolutely transparent. That (way) there's no surprise, that we have a sense of what that costs is, to drive that down and introduce some competition into the marketplace."
Instead, Gordon wanted to focus on things like creating a resource pool to provide insurance to groups who have trouble getting insurance or expanding the type of plans available. He said there are ways for Wyoming to drive down medical costs to such a degree so that insurance companies from other states would want to work in Wyoming.
Throne, the former minority leader in the state House, said Wyoming should have accepted Medicaid expansion when it was first put on the table and would make that a priority if she is elected. She said her record for passing bills as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Legislature showed she could get the expansion passed.
"The failure of the Legislature to expand Medicaid and to bring $577 million into this state to help 20,000 people obtain health-care coverage was the worst thing I saw them do in 10 years," Throne said.
"As a Democrat I got all sorts of things through the Legislature, and I started with a huge minority of the votes every time. I made this one of my key planks. There were a lot of Republicans who wanted to support Medicaid expansion."
While Throne said having more insurance companies in the state would be a good thing, it hasn't happened yet despite Wyoming being one of six states that allow it. Throne said if the state expanded Medicaid coverage it would eventually lower the overall cost of health care, which in turn could attract more insurance companies to operate here.
Struempf, who works in the IT field, said he wanted the state to expand Medicaid coverage. He said providing coverage to the more than 20,000 residents who do qualify would benefit the state's rural hospitals, which bear much of the burden right now for providing care for the uninsured. He's heard from board members of hospitals across the state that they want to see an expansion happen.
"When people who are in poverty can't afford to go to the doctor, they wait until it gets really, really bad and then they go to the emergency room," Struempf said.
"If they can't pay for it, the hospitals have to absorb it. And it's millions of dollars that the hospitals have to absorb because of uninsured people. Not only would it help our businesses such as hospitals financially, it would provide coverage for thousands of people in our state that don't have it."
Struempf said driving down medical costs in the state would help bring in more insurance companies. Wyoming should work with the medical community, Struempf said, to provide clinics for preventive care, help combine resources to lower costs and that the use of nurse practitioners should be encouraged as another cost-saving measure.
Rammell, a veterinarian, didn't want the state to accept the Medicaid expansions in large part because of the burden it would place on the state budget. The state economy is too weak to handle the additional strain of the expansion. Instead, Rammell said, the state should be focused on boosting the economy, which in turn will provide opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty through taking part in the economic expansion.
"It's not because I don't care about people below the poverty limit. I feel like we do have a responsibility as people, as citizens of the United States to help each other. But what you need to realize is that Medicaid money comes with obligations to the state. We have to pay a good portion of that ourselves," Rammell said.
"Over the last 10, 12 years our economy ranks right at the bottom of states. That's pretty sad. Our coal industry is hurting, oil has made a little bit of a comeback. We're a fossil fuel state and we're having some hard times."
Rammell said he would deregulate the insurance and business markets. That in turn would put out the welcome mat for insurance companies to come into the state and set up shop.
Health care wasn't the only topic on the agenda for the forum. One audience member asked if the candidates would support a potential hate crime bill that would protect the LGBTQ community. Here's what they said:
Mark Gordon: "Can a piece of legislation improve on (the protections granted in the state Constitution)?"
Rex Rammell: "When we start to raise that agenda, it lifts them up beyond us. We're giving them special treatment because of the way they choose to live."
Lawrence Struempf: "People should have the right to be who they want to be and no one should have the right to hurt them or kill them because of who they are."
Mary Throne: "The first step would be to have a hate crime law like the other 49 states in the country."
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