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Medicaid expansion at forefront as cancer survivors, advocates meet with lawmakers

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers met Wednesday with dozens of constituents who all have one thing in common: a cancer story. 

In years past, dozens of volunteers for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) would flock to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers face-to-face. But this year, as Missouri continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers are connecting with legislators virtually. At the top of the priority list for survivors and advocates: Medicaid expansion. 

“Expanding MO HealthNet will help reduce the number of uninsured Missourians in the state. And we know when more Missourians have access to insurance, they have more access to things like well-woman visits, colonoscopies, cancer treatment — all the things we know help in the fight against cancer,” Emily Kalmer, the government relations director for ACS CAN, told The Missouri Times. 

Last year, Missourians voted to expand MO HealthNet services, the state’s Medicaid program, for individuals between 19 and 64 years old with an income level at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Eligibility would open to about 275,000 additional people, according to an estimate from Gov. Mike Parson. 

More than 37,300 Missourians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2021, and nearly 13,000 will die, Kalmer said. 

“Cost is a big barrier for people with insurance. We want people to have access to affordable, adequate insurance that covers cancer,” Kalmer said. “We want to make sure that any insurance they’re able to access covers things like cancer screenings [and] cancer treatments.” 

In years past, dozens of volunteers for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network would flock to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers face-to-face. But this year, as Missouri continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers are connecting with legislators virtually.

Aside from access to insurance, ACS advocates are also talking to lawmakers about funding for the Show Me Healthy Women program and tobacco prevention. 

The Show Me Healthy Women program gives free breast and cervical cancer screenings to qualifying women as well as help with treatment if cancer is diagnosed. The program is housed under the Department of Health and Senior Services and is funded through general revenue as well as federal money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) cancer programs. Advocates are hoping legislators continue to fund the program. 

“I appreciated the opportunity to speak with the advocates about the importance of access to care for Missourians battling cancer — as well as the need to fund the NextGen project at Mizzou — to try to find a cure in our lifetimes,” Sen. Greg Razer said. 

“I appreciated talking with advocates from the American Cancer Society,” Sen. Lauren Arthur said. “It’s so important to hear from people with firsthand experience, and I hope the General Assembly supports their commonsense priorities.”

COVID’s impact 

Like everything in the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has had a great impact on cancer screenings and treatment — but it’s unclear just how detrimental it has been as hospitals and health centers had to put some nonemergent care on pause. 

“We’re not going to know for a number of years what the full impact of that is,” Kalmer said. “We know that people still have these cancers and many of them will be diagnosed later which is then a challenge for their treatment, but we don’t have enough data yet to say what the full impact of it will be. We just know it’s going to be a huge challenge in the fight against cancer.” 

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The ACS CAN advocacy day, too, had to change this year, becoming virtual instead of in-person at the Capitol. But going virtual may have allowed more people to participate than in years past, Allison Johnson, a volunteer and cancer survivor, said. 

“We might have some people who might not come in the past because maybe they couldn’t travel to Jefferson City or take a full day off of work,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of cool that it’s virtual and some new people are getting engaged which is awesome. Once they see how the day goes and see how much their stories make an impact on their legislators, I think they’ll stick around and continue to work with us.” 

Johnson was just 19 and a student at the University of Missouri when she went in for a routine exam, and a doctor found a tumor on her cervix. She had to leave school for a year and undergo treatment, including chemotherapy and fertility treatment, in St. Louis. She hadn’t experienced any symptoms ahead of her doctor’s visit, just underscoring the importance of those visits. 

“The thing that I find is most impactful when speaking with our legislators is just our personal stories,” she said. “Cancer survivors or caregivers, everyone has been touched by cancer. Everyone in Missouri has some cancer story. Just putting a face with a story or situation and showing that constituents in Missouri really care about these issues I think makes a big difference when it comes time to vote on issues or funding or talk about the budget.” 

“Although everyone’s story is unique, we’re all the same in that we have a cancer story.”