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Hospitalized legislator's email prompts state health-care debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2009 - Missouri's battle over Gov. Jay Nixon's proposal to expand healthcare coverage has led to sparring over this week's hospitalization of a former aide who's now a legislator, state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia.

Her explanatory e-mail, and one sent in response by state Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, are now fueling a lot of Web debate.

Still was hospitalized last weekend for threateningly high blood pressure after she had complained of a severe headache. She was released on Wednesday and is now resting at her home in Columbia. Still's mother had a stroke in her 40s, apparently caused by high blood pressure.

While the legislator was in the hospital, Still's staff sent out an e-mail to fellow House Democrats and the Republican chairmen of the three committees on which she sits. The e-mail ended up being circulated among other legislators and political activists, and by Thursday was on the Web.

Here's the Still e-mail:

"Representative Mary Still was admitted to the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics on Sunday March 8, 2009 for testing and treatment related to high blood pressure and possible pneumonia.

"Rep. Still appreciates the excellent care she is receiving and remains committed to a state policy that will provide high quality medical services to all Missourians, especially our state's children...."

Parkinson followed with this e-mail sent to legislators and staff:

"Representative Mark Parkinson had an annual medical appointment in St. Charles on Friday, March 6, 2009 for testing and examination. All signs appear to point to Rep. Parkinson being in excellent health, although he is still awaiting the results of his cholesterol test.

"Rep. Parkinson appreciates the excellent care provided by the doctors and nursing staff and remains committed to a state policy that will affirm the superiority of a market-based health care system, especially for the children of our state."

Stacey G. Newman, executive director of the Missouri Women's Coalition, then fired off a statement Thursday afternoon saying that her group is "appalled and disgusted" by Parkinson's e-mail. Still sits on the coalition's board of directors.

"Instead of compassion by a colleague, she was subjected to ridicule," Newman wrote. She called Parkinson's observation about health care coverage "in extreme poor taste and lacking in compassion considering the increasing numbers of Missouri children who are without the health care that he himself receives from his state government."

Parkinson replied in an interview that he wishes Still a speedy recovery. But he viewed her e-mail, he said, to be "incredibly inappropriate'' and an attempt "to politicize'' her hospitalization. Parkinson said he heard from other legislators who agreed with him.

"I just chose to use a little humor to make a point,'' Parkinson said. He added that he viewed Nixon's various proposals to expand Medicaid coverage as moves to "put more people on welfare,'' which Parkinson opposes.

Still said Thursday that her e-mail was merely aimed at explaining her absence from the Legislature and that she had not intended it to be widely circulated. But in any event, she said, "My point was that I have excellent health care. It was incredible to have it."

As a legislator, Still has health coverage through the state. Prior to January's swearing-in, Still had retiree coverage from her years as a state employee.

"I can afford the good medicine" to combat her blood-pressure problem, Still said. But more and more Missourians can't, she added, citing rising unemployment, job layoffs and businesses who don't provide insurance.

Good health care coverage, said Still, "is important to our economy, important to people who are suffering."

While recuperating, Still has taken calls from like-minded legislators who have told her of the Republican resistance this week to Nixon's latest plan, which calls for increasing the fees paid by Missouri hospitals into a special state fund that is used to match federal Medicaid dollars.

The hospitals support the idea, and complain of their rising costs of uncompensated emergency room visits by the uninsured. The hospitals would receive some of the extra federal Medicaid money. Parkinson and some fellow GOP colleagues oppose the plan, saying they don't want to expand the state's Medicaid rolls.

In any event, Still said she's eager to join the debate in the Capitol. She also took no offense from Parkinson's e-mail: "There's an old saying, that the hit dog howls.''

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