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Heinz calls for Legislature to restore AHCCCS funding

Cancer patient Bobbie Thayer tells the story of how her AHCCCS coverage will soon be cut. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Cancer patient Bobbie Thayer doesn’t know when her AHCCCS coverage is going to run out, but she knows it will be soon. She doesn’t know how soon she’ll be healthy enough to return to work. And she doesn’t know how she’s going to be able to pay the $10,000 per month in medication and treatment in the six months between her AHCCCS coverage ending and eligibility for another federal program.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bobbie Thayer said, her voice cracking. “I want to live.”

Thayer, 58, was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in March of this year – a type of cancer so aggressive, the medical community calls it “tornado cancer.”

Thayer quit her job at the Arizona Department of Economic Security to undergo chemotherapy and begin radiation therapy, all of which has so far been covered by AHCCCS.

But once she began receiving Social Security Disability Insurance, Thayer earned too much each month to qualify for AHCCCS anymore. She knows that her coverage termination date is coming, but hasn’t received notice yet as to when it will be. Coverage is available under the federal Preexisting Condition Insurance Plan, but not for another six months after she is removed from the AHCCCS rolls.

Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, said a program cut by the Republican-led Legislature last session would have been able to help Thayer pay for her medical bills. The Medical Expense Deduction program, which was shut down Oct. 1, was designed to help patients who don’t qualify for Medicaid but whose income after medical expenses is less than 40 percent of the federal poverty level.

A hospital physician, Heinz said he sees more and more patients who are unable to afford treatment for their catastrophic health conditions. He called for the Legislature to restore funding to the Medical Expense Deduction program.

“What it comes down to is hard-working members of our community, who are contributing to society or who have contributed to our society, through no fault of their own getting thrust into this kind of terrible situation, falling through the cracks, and landing on the ground, no safety net,” said Heinz.

Heinz said the Legislature could restore the $70 million estimated cost for the MED program this fiscal year based on the Financial Advisory Committee’s recent estimate that the state will have a $416 million surplus this year because of stronger than expected tax collections.

At the time the MED program was scrapped, there were about 5,700 enrolled.

One of those affected was Bill Nelson, who has had two heart attacks and suffers from congestive heart failure and Type 2 diabetes. Nelson and his wife, June, who has undergone several surgeries as well, looked closely at their finances before moving to Arizona from Chicago in 1993 to retire. Between savings, his retirement fund, stock market investments and money from Nelson’s grandmother’s passing, they decided they were stable enough financially.

But then seemingly smart investments like General Motors stock collapsed, and their health started to deteriorate. Even with health insurance, the medical expenses began to pile up until Nelson was taking loans out against their house to try and get caught up.

In June 2010, they were approved for MED, but were dropped when the program ended.

“We do understand that the state is hurting for money and things have to be cut,” Nelson said. “But when you suddenly see that they found a $300 million surplus, you think they would want to use it to keep people alive.”

Convincing Republican fiscal hawks to restore the funding may be a tough sell, however. Behind the two years of surpluses looms projected deficits of between $610 million and $1.2 billion, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, has already said he thinks the state should sock away the surplus money to prepare for those shortfalls.

Heinz, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee, said he has spoken with Gov. Jan Brewer’s office and other lawmakers about running a bill next session to restore the MED program, possibly with a Republican co-sponsor. The feedback he’s gotten so far has been “very positive,” but he added that he hopes that introducing legislators to people like Thayer and Nelson will help the hard-liners soften their stance.

“It’s sometimes very easy to confuse a set of numbers, or a line item, and not make a direct connection to the people,” he said. “Now, you have that connection. Bobbie Thayer is not a line item. We don’t, at the Legislature, always have that context when decisions are being made.”

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