Simone Campbell on tour in Kansas City: ‘Expand Medicaid coverage’

Sr. Simone Campbell frequently brings reports about people who are affected by government policy to elected officials. Here she is showing the audience at the Kansas City event a photo of Margaret Kistler, a Cincinnati woman who died of colon cancer in 2012 because she lost her job and could not afford medical testing and screening out of pocket. (Dawn Cherie Araujo)

Kansas City, Missouri — Unlike what one might imagine of the executive director of a national organization, Sr. Simone Campbell doesn’t carry a briefcase. Instead, she carries her documents and books from city to city, state to state, in a navy tote bag from “The Colbert Report,” a show she’s appeared on twice.

She laughs when she describes the absurdity of American politics today, but she’s just as likely to cry when she hears tales of injustice. On the lapel of her jacket, Campbell wears a pin with the words of her favorite prayer: Come, Holy Spirit.

And indeed, if you ask Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, it was the Holy Spirit that led her to Kansas City, Mo., last night to talk about her organization, NETWORK, and what she believes are the nation’s toughest issues: primarily the growing wealth gap and the need for Medicaid expansion in every state.

Speaking to a crowd of about 500 to 600 people at Community Christian Church, Campbell deplored the economic and political policies in the United States that she says explicitly hurt the poor and benefit the rich.

“Who are we as a nation that people can work full-time and still live in a homeless shelter?” she asked, sharing stories of people she’s met around the country who have jobs but still cannot make ends meet.

The poorest people in our country, she said, even when they are able to find work, are neither paid enough nor given adequate benefits – with a lack of affordable health care coverage being key among those inadequate benefits. And that’s why Campbell believes Medicaid expansion is so important.

“We’re here supporting you all in expanding Medicaid to cover those who are most marginalized,” she told supporters at a private reception before the speaking event. “The fact is that it makes economic sense for your states. And there’s all kinds of evidence that where Medicaid has been expanded, the economy’s grown . . . and the health care system is better integrated into the community.”

Since its inception, the Medicaid program has provided health care coverage for low-income Americans, but exactly how poor someone had to be in order to be eligible has always varied from state to state. Initially, the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as “Obamacare,” expanded the Medicaid program to uniformly include any adult age 19 to 65 who earns 138 percent of the federal poverty level – that is, $11,670 for an individual or $23,850 for a family of four – in all states.

However, a 2012 Supreme Court decision ruled it was unconstitutional to require states to expand their Medicaid coverage, and 24 states, including Missouri and Kansas, have opted not to.

Alice Kitchen, a member of NETWORK’s national board of directors and a Kansas City resident, helped organize the event, saying she wanted to expose her city to both NETWORK and Nuns on the Bus – Campbell’s multi-state bus tours that have advocated against Paul Ryan’s budget and for comprehensive immigration reform.

But she also wanted to use Campbell’s notoriety to effect change in Missouri.

“We actually took the Nuns on the Bus to our congressional delegation across the state,” she said. “We met with Senate and House staff, and we talked to them about the federal budget and Medicaid expansion, which is really important.”

One Missouri state senator, Jolie Justus ­– a Democrat from Kansas City – spoke at Campbell’s event. And although she will not be returning to the state Senate next year due to term limits, she urged Missourians to continue fighting for economic justice.

Fr. John Wandless, for one, said he plans to do just that. He’s starting an organization called What U Can Do that he describes as a NETWORK of sorts for the state of Missouri, inspired by Campbell.

“I’m very impressed with what she’s doing and their whole organization,” he said. “Their strength in what they’re doing – not being intimidated and pursuing social justice where they can. I hope to learn from her.”

Wandless is already the founder of Urban Ranger Corps, a development program for high-risk, inner-city boys in Kansas City, but he said he wants to tackle broader economic justice issues like taxes and minimum wage.

And, in the end, Campbell says Christians are called to confront these types of economic issues if they want to truly follow Jesus.

“You walk toward trouble, you don’t walk away from it,” she said. “You walk toward it so you can embrace it and hold it and help people who are suffering.”

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is a staff reporter for Global Sisters Report.]