MSNBC Town hall in West Virginia with Senator Sanders.
By Kerri Barber
In 2015, the Obama administration was celebrating the fifth year of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the third year after implementation. That spring I was invited to the White House to work with Chief of Staff Valerie Jarret on issues affecting small businesses. At the time, I was running a business support operations for marketing and benefits, including ACA for individuals and SHOP. One of my chosen states was West Virginia as well as Maine, Virginia, Georgia and those states that had not expanded Medicaid.
I chose those states because I knew there were entire counties where no one could buy insurance even if they had a stack of cash to buy a policy outright. Insurance companies just wouldn’t sell to high risk environmental impact areas.
The federal government could not force a private insurance company to operate in specific areas, only to impose regulations on the territories they did operate within. Even after ACA/Obamacare became law, many areas were “dead zones” without even Medicaid providers.
Then I discovered areas in Maine, Virginia, and elsewhere that were also in new unreported “dead zones”. I had one client I helped find coverage, but her neighbor just five miles away had no carriers willing to write a policy. After exhaustive research, I discovered the reason was she lived within five miles of a fracking well. Then it kept happening- state after state. The people who needed it most, by their proximity to an environmental hazard, were being left out- by profit margins.
Then I found myself sitting with the Obama Chief of Staff, the Acting Secretary of the EPA, and the Secretary of Commerce and I was terrified. I knew what I was about to say, in this semi-public setting, would topple all of the rhetoric being sold to the country.
I tried to frame my question clearly and without blame. As I explained this very real link between families and industry, the consequences and the impact to communities and businesses, I watched their faces turn bright red and the deep frown spread on our event coordinator’s face. They knew I was telling the truth and I just became a whistle blower on the White House flagship policy while sitting in a White House conference room.
And an audible gasp went up from my small business colleagues sitting around me who understood the vast implications of what I was saying. The EPA director offered a curt response about new legislation in revised “Clean Air and Water Act”, then quickly left the room. There was to have been no questions nor comments on ACA, and yet I had offered one that highlighted the intersectionality of private insurance and environmental factors.
Today, as I write this, I am in a county with no Medicaid providers at all. This is one of hundreds across the country where a pat response to expanding access to care falls to Medicaid expansion as an easy answer. It simply is not a realistic solution. Remember this when politicians talk of, “incremental change.”
Today, there are still over a hundred thousand active and retired fracking wells across the country and those “dead zones” are still in play. Today, there are still hundreds of miles in West Virginia where no one can buy insurance and must rely on an employer for coverage or take a Medicaid policy they cannot use.
The solutions going forward must include ALL of us- absolutely all of us, and not be a condition of employment, age, health status, or proximity of location to toxic areas we created.
If we continue to allow toxic enterprises then we must also bare the cost of care for our people. That’s #MedicareforAll.