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Rural Day shows Medicaid expansion needs

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Last month, more than 600 rural advocates from 85 counties traveled from across North Carolina, from the mountains and from the coast, to gather in Raleigh and make their voices heard.

It was the North Carolina Rural Center’s third annual Rural Day, and it was the biggest turnout we have ever seen in our 32-year history working on behalf of rural North Carolina.

Gathering at the Raleigh Convention Center, the rural champions who joined us that day heard from national thought leaders about what programs and initiatives are working in other states in the areas of health, broadband and small business development; and how successful efforts might be replicated here in our state to help more rural North Carolinas access affordable high-speed broadband, build their own businesses and nurture healthier communities.

They also heard from elected state leaders about their specific visions for the future of rural North Carolina, leaders like Gov. Roy Cooper, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Senate President Pro-tempore Phil Berger, Attorney General Josh Stein and many others.

But the voice that resonated the loudest was former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Governor Kasich shared the story of how his state came together, working across political differences and party lines, to pass Medicaid expansion in the Buckeye State and get more hardworking families connected to the health care they so desperately need to keep working and keep going to school.

We heard Governor Kasich speak about the imperative of closing the health insurance coverage gap in Ohio. The bipartisan effort to expand Medicaid in Ohio meant more families could rest a little easier at night.

“When we get to heaven, St. Peter isn’t going to ask what we did to balance the budget. He’s going to ask what we did for the least of these.” Kasich told the crowd at the Raleigh Convention Center.

“Medicaid expansion is a human issue. This is about your mother, your father or your neighbor,” Kasich said.

The N.C. Rural Center estimates that more than 400,000 North Carolinians fall into our state’s health insurance coverage gap, meaning they are not eligible for Medicaid and earn too little to pay their insurance premiums in the marketplace.

These are the men and women working every day — some in more than one job — to build a better life for their families, but who simply cannot afford health insurance. Those who fall into our insurance coverage gap may be one hospital visit or health crisis away from economic catastrophe.

Closing the health insurance coverage gap would mean healthier families, and healthier families mean a healthier economy. It means a more reliable workforce for our businesses and industries. It means more jobs in our rural communities. It means more financially secure rural hospitals in our most chronically unhealthy and economically distressed communities.

Without financially stable hospitals, rural communities struggle to keep the businesses they have, and are at an immediate disadvantage in attracting new ones.

It’s time we acted. Several plans have been put forward — some to simply expand Medicaid, others to create a North Carolina-specific solution. Whatever the exact policy, it’s time to work together, as Republicans and Democrats, as rural and urban communities, to close our state’s coverage gap.

The health of our people and our economy depend on it.

Patrick Woodie is president of the N.C. Rural Center, a nonprofit organization whose loans invest in rural economic development.

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