Political Horizons: Racial element to Obamacare debate

Back in the spring of 1963, Gary J. Hebert, a white publisher, told a documentarian that he knew from his own experience about the “fabulous attitude” between blacks and whites in Plaquemine. Everyone was happy with the way things were.

“We have given them just about everything we can,” Hebert said on the eve of what became a violent civil rights confrontation.

Seems that many of the blacks in that ostensibly idyllic community actually were not that happy with high unemployment, few opportunities and difficult hurdles to voting; or at least that’s what they told the same documentarian, Richard Moore.

Divergent views through a racial prism also have surrounded the debate about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Challenges to President Barack Obama’s signature legislation shut down the federal government last week, a fight endorsed by most of the rich Republican white males who make up most of Louisiana’s congressional delegation. They joined the GOP faction wanting to undo Obamacare, a law that has been found constitutional.

Agreeing that caller “Nick from Reno” was “precisely correct,” northwest Louisiana U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, told a nationally syndicated radio audience that Republicans need to fight the law of the land, just as their forefathers fought against slavery, which also was a law found constitutional.

Though race occasionally was interjected, much of the debate about expanding Medicaid, a key component of Obamacare, revolved around finances.

The federal government promised to initially pay all a state’s costs of expanding Medicaid rolls to include workers who make too much to qualify for the government’s health care insurance program for the poor, but too little to buy adequate policies on their own.

The federal government eventually would pay 90 percent of the costs of those people added to Medicaid rolls. Even at that level of funding, states with modest tax collections could not handle the additional costs, or so went the argument raised by most governors, including Louisiana’s, who refused the federal perks.

An analysis last week by The New York Times of a recent U.S. Census Bureau count found that in the 26 states that rejected Medicaid expansion, it’s mostly African-Americans working in low-paying jobs who are not being insured. The study calculated about 435,000 cashiers, 341,000 cooks and 253,000 nurses’ aides did not have health care coverage because of their states’ decision not to expand Medicaid.

The report noted a pattern of exclusion among the very same states that, for years, threw up barriers to African-American voting, education and employment.

Though not specifically reported by the Times, those same Census Bureau numbers show that 14.2 percent of Louisiana’s white residents are uninsured compared to 21 percent for black residents. The Louisiana Budget Project pointed out a few weeks ago that the racial disparity did not exist among children, largely because the state had changed the qualifications to expand Medicaid coverage to youth.

“It’s not about how many federal dollars we can receive. It’s not about that. You ready? It’s about race. I know nobody wants to talk about that. It’s about the race of this African-American president,” state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, said in May after several attempts to expand Medicaid in Louisiana were rejected by the Legislature.

Bloggers called her names. Comment sections to online news articles mocked her light skin color. She was condemned by colleagues and chased around the State Capitol by television cameras.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, told a television reporter that race was out of place in a debate that revolved around whether President Barack Obama was telling the truth. Gov. Bobby Jindal used a Louisiana Family Forum event to say the injection of race into the Affordable Care Act debate was “offensive.”

Race is an inevitable part of the Obamacare debate, says Linda Johnson, a retired member of the elected Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. As a teen, she participated in the Plaquemine civil rights protests.

Decisions about health care are being rationalized by all the chatter about finances and private enterprise, but the result is hard-working people have been refused medical care because their employers can’t afford to provide adequate insurance, she said.

“These decisions, right here in Louisiana, are devastating to the minority community. That’s what the minority community sees,” Johnson said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address mballard@theadvocate.com.