Medicaid protest plays to quiet Capitol

Saturday, May 7, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As the self-proclaimed Medicaid Militia gathered on the Missouri Capitol steps on a windy but warm Friday afternoon for a funeral procession marking the "death" of state health-care services for the poor, a leader of the rally walked the group through the basic rules of peaceful protest.

No physically accosting anyone. No property damage. And if police attempt to intervene, chant "The police need a raise."

With about 80 participants, the rally was smaller than most of the numerous Medicaid protests held since January when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt called for deep cuts in the program. And the timing of the rally, which was intended as a last-ditch effort to prevent approximately 100,000 Medicaid recipients from being dropped from the program, wasn't the best.

Although Friday was the constitutional deadline for sending the state budget bills to the governor, the legislature finished the job a day early. As a result, lawmakers took the day off and, except for the protesters, the Capitol was virtually deserted.

Megan Schulz of Paraquad, a St. Louis-based group that advocates for the disabled, said mobilizing folks to come to Jefferson City isn't easy, especially since accommodations need to be made for the physically handicapped. Although disappointed that Blunt and Republican legislative leaders have paid them little heed, Schulz said disabled Missourians remain committed to the cause.

"People are extremely frustrated," Schulz said. "They are trying to share their stories, and people aren't listening. But they are going to keep going. These are people's lives. Medicaid isn't a luxury for them."

Robin Acree, executive director of Grass Roots Organizing, said that since her organization exists on private donations, just arranging transportation to bring people to the Capitol can be daunting. Raising the money to pay the $500 to $625 cost of renting a single bus can take the better part of a day, she said. Grass Roots Organizing, which advocates for the poor throughout central Missouri, sent three buses with supporters to the rally.

"We do this on the cheap," Acree said. "People bring sack lunches and make homemade signs."

Led by someone dressed as the Grim Reaper, the protesters solemnly marched around Capitol during Friday's rally. Pallbearers carried six cardboard coffins that together spelled out the phrase "Blunt's budget cuts will kill people." The coffins had no bottoms and observers noted with irony, given the Republican dominance of Missouri government, that some were constructed from old Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign signs.

The procession ended at the governor's office, where three ministers offered eulogies to Medicaid, which will continue to serve about 900,000 Missourians. As with previous protests, no one from Blunt's staff acknowledged the group's presence.

As they stood under the welcome sign that hangs above the office door, the Rev. James Morris, a St. Louis pastor and an official with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said the group didn't feel welcome. Morris prayed for Blunt and Republican lawmakers to reconsider their actions.

"O God, let them know you are not pleased with the cuts that have been made," Morris said.

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