Opinion: Idahoans deserve the health care they voted for

Back in 2018, grassroots efforts by citizens of Idaho were put forth to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot. Everyday folks worked, rain or shine, to spread the word about the issue, some of them spending several hours after their day jobs just to talk to their neighbors about health care. This is hard work that the Legislature is not required to put in to introduce legislation. After volunteers were able to collect the necessary signatures, which was not an easy feat, Medicaid expansion was on the ballot in Idaho. The citizens of Idaho went to the ballot box and made their voices heard, and in November of 2018, Medicaid expansion passed. It allowed us to accept federal dollars to offer health care to more than 10,000 low-income Idaho workers.

Before Medicaid expansion, many working-class Idahoans were left without desperately needed health coverage. When they couldn’t afford the health care they needed, they had to make difficult choices between things like food, rent or health care. They sometimes were left to slowly die — an immeasurable human cost of denying health care. In my personal experience, I knew someone unable to afford preventative and critical care, which caused her cancer to progress to the point that she was not going to live. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Idahoans in the past who had surely faced the same reality of death without health care.

Unfortunately, our Legislature is going against the voices of Idahoans. Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, has introduced House Bill 123 to repeal Medicaid expansion with party-line support for it. Vander Woude stated, “I don’t wanna leave people out in the cold with nothing, but in the same token, I’m uncomfortable leaving it to continue in this vein with that much spending.”

Accepting federal dollars through Medicaid expansion has actually made health care cheaper for the state of Idaho. The reality is, it will leave Idahoans in the cold, and it will cause people to die.

As a mental health specialist, I have a particular concern with the massive human cost this will have for the people I serve. Picture folks with a serious mental health condition unable to receive preventative care and frequently landing in much more costly mental hospitals. Imagine them clogging up the court system and jails because they don’t have the medication necessary to stop their delusions and emotional dysregulation, so they self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, Idaho had the fifth-highest suicide rate in the nation. Imagine how everyday people simply going without their bipolar or depression medication because they can’t afford a doctor or the prescriptions could end their lives.

It is not up to a paternalistic Legislature to decide what is best for Idahoans when we have already spoken on this issue. The people of Idaho deserve the health care they’ve already chosen their federal tax dollars to pay for. Now, the only “cost” issue truly facing us is the human cost of not providing that health care.

Cecile Pérez is a local mental health advocate and the District 32 legislative chair for the Bonneville County Democratic Central Committee.