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Reform Medicaid so it can help those who truly need it

Medicaid has been getting a bum rap lately. Medicaid was born in 1965 as part of the Great Society created under President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was meant to provide health care to those too poor to pay for it. Johnson's hope was to "give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty." Medicaid is funded by both the state and federal government, and managed separately by each state. It serves primarily the working poor, seniors, children and the disabled.

At face value, Medicaid's purpose and reach are difficult not to support. The main reason it has been getting a bad rap is the increasing burden it's having on local property taxpayers. Year after year, county taxpayers have seen their property taxes increase at a double-digit rate. This is because state lawmakers placed the cost of Medicaid onto the 62 counties, making it an unfunded mandate. According to a report released in 2004 by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, the cost of Medicaid isn't coming down anytime soon.

"Medicaid costs are pushing already high local property taxes even higher [and it is] still a major burden for county governments in New York State. In 2003, Medicaid alone amounted to 19 percent of county spending and equaled 73 percent of property taxes. Preliminary numbers indicate those shares continue to grow," Hevesi said.

The argument could be made that the cost of health care also continues to increase each year, and until that industry is regulated properly, these increases will be par for the course.

As the New York Times reported last year, there is an awful lot of fraud in Medicaid. It said, "Many experts say that it is likely that at least 10 percent and probably more of New York Medicaid dollars are stolen or wasted." The current Medicaid system operates on $44.5 billion, meaning state taxpayers could be paying $4.45 billion in waste and fraud.

It's no wonder that homeowners criticize this program and look for budgetary cuts to help reduce their rising property taxes. The fear that advocates for the working poor have is the lack of an alternative for Medicaid recipients if cuts are ultimately made. A single mother with two asthmatic children certainly can't afford to join a private health plan. And I would hate to think that Americans would suggest this single mother of two should tough it out without health insurance until she gets on her feet.

The real alternative is for New York State leaders to stop pointing their fingers and begin to police our current Medicaid system for abuse, waste and fraud. Our state leaders should also remove the burden of paying for Medicaid from the backs of local taxpayers and deal with the reality of finding a way to pay for this crucial service affecting the have-nots in our community.

As Johnson said, "There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society."

Joe Rossi is political director for SEIU Local 200United, which represents 12,000 workers in upstate New York.

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