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Democrats going on the offensive in push for nationwide Medicaid expansion

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Washington have found a piece of the Affordable Care Act that they can roundly get behind – one that even those facing voters this fall in red states can afford to support.

Senate Democrats say they’re going on the offensive in pushing Medicaid expansion by urging Republican governors across the nation to reconsider their opposition to the optional federal aid.

Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut’s junior senator and a steadfast Obamacare supporter, said he and 19 other Senate Democrats sent a letter Wednesday urging 18 governors who have not expanded Medicaid to do so. Murphy noted that both progressive and conservative Democrats are among the co-signers.

“There is a fundamental inequity playing out in your state and others that have chosen to not expand this basic health care coverage,” the lawmakers wrote. “A political difference should not result in almost six million Americans falling into a coverage gap.”

The original Affordable Care Act required states to expand Medicaid to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, but a 2012 Supreme Court decision left it up to states to choose whether or not they want to participate. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C. have opted in so far.

Murphy said Democrats are “starting to go on the offensive politically” in a way they didn’t in the 2010 and 2012 elections. Many have been hesitant to run on a platform supporting Obamacare, however, more are seeing Medicaid expansion as a facet they can get behind without risking an election.

Senators Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan, both facing reelection in November, have said they support Medicaid expansion in their red home states of Louisiana and North Carolina, respectively.

“Health care is a stark contrast between Kay’s record of pushing for commonsense fixes to this law and [her opponent] Thom Tillis who brags about rejecting health care for 500,000 people,” Hagan’s campaign spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers have largely rejected Medicaid expansion, as many of the GOP’s staunch Obamacare critics are concerned that costs will eventually fall on the states.

However, some Republicans have tamed their opposition to Medicaid expansion, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. The state’s House Human Services Committee voted Wednesday to send expansion legislation to the House floor.

Democrats nationwide are asserting the federal government will fund the expansion for the first three years, leading to coverage for people who wouldn’t have received it before. Murphy singled out Texas, saying it alone has more than a million additional residents who would qualify for Medicaid if Gov. Rick Perry decided to opt in.

However, that will be an uphill battle. Murphy admitted that he doesn’t think a letter in itself is going to persuade Republican governors to do an about-face on the issue, and Perry’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment about his opposition to expanding Medicaid.

Murphy said Senate Democrats are planning an all-out Medicaid expansion campaign, including news appearances, social media pushes and presences in their home states.

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Personality/Profile Article

Sen. Chris Murphy wanted hard work – and he got it

WASHINGTON – It was in the Sandy Hook firehouse on Dec. 14, 2012 where 26 families were told their loved ones wouldn’t be coming home.

There to hear the desperate wails of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, was then-Senator-elect Chris Murphy, himself a father of two.

“I remember the look on [Murphy’s] face,” said Pat Llodra, Newtown’s First Selectman. “He is looking at a room full of families his age. It’s the look of devastation. It’s the look of disbelief. It was like at that moment, I was witnessing an epiphany.”

It was in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012 where Adam Lanza gunned down and killed 20 children and six adults in one of the deadliest school shootings in United States history.

Murphy, Connecticut’s junior senator who had just been elected that year, was witnessing a crisis thrust his way and a soon-to-be massive political issue falling largely in his lap.

The 40-year-old Connecticut native ascended up the political ladder quickly, and according to those close to him, always wanted and valued hard work.

And hard work he got.

“[Gun control] is an issue I have worked on since Newtown,” he said Wednesday, “and it will be an issue I work on the for the rest of my life. I have never been this personally committed to an issue.”

Murphy said expanded background checks to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is the gun reform he feels can realistically pass. Just five months after the massacre in Newtown, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled his party’s gun control bill after an amendment that would have expanded background checks failed to garner enough votes.

For Murphy and others who continue to support the reform, it will be an uphill battle – much like everything else.

The Senate’s youngest member – who says he’s content being a senator – started his political career in Southington, Conn. in 1997 as a member of the municipality’s

Planning and Zoning Commission. From there, he moved from local government, to serving in the Connecticut General Assembly for eight years, and then represented the state’s 5th congressional district for three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mark Sciota, who sat next to Murphy in the 1990s during “P and Z” commission, said he’s not at all surprised to see Murphy’s rapid political success, noting that “he always knew what he wanted and he worked really hard to get it.”

Sciota, now Southington’s deputy town manager, said Murphy always asked a dizzying amount of questions about every zoning application so that he could fully understand it.

“He’s the kind of person who really understands an issue and he really goes after all the facts,” Sciota said. “But as soon as you meet him, he will make you feel like you’re the only person in the room, and you will feel like you’ve known him for years.”

That accessibility is something Murphy said he still values so that constituents can express concerns, ideas and grievances, or so a national audience can feel like they know the man who’s busy advocating gun control reform, Medicaid expansion and marriage equality.

To make sure that accessibility is felt, Murphy said he has in small ways tried to reinvent how legislative bodies interact with constituents, whether that’s knocking on thousands of doors, or organizing a hike to discuss the issues.

And it’s why Murphy – much to his staff’s chagrin – posts directly to his own Twitter account.

Days after the shooting in Newtown, Murphy was walking out of the funeral of Grace McDonnell, a 7-year-old killed in the rampage. He was handed the National Rifle Association’s first statement made after the shooting, in which NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre had urged lawmakers to push for more guns in schools and allow for armed guards to protect children.

“I almost vomited when I read their statement,” Murphy said, “and I was so upset that I immediately sent out a tweet referencing the fact that I just came out of a funeral, and I thought it was disgusting.”

Murphy’s tweet read: “Walking out of another funeral and was handed the NRA transcript. The most revolting, tone deaf statement I’ve ever seen.”

The fiery response became, for a short time, the response of Newtown. It was important to Murphy that he was accessible, down-to-earth and a “normal person” throughout the grieving process, but still serving in some ways as a spokesperson for the small town.

“When I watch him talk about this issue, he’s not just being a senator and doing what he has to do,” Llodra, of Newtown, said. “He’s bringing to this all the emotion of a dad. If I didn’t know that he was so junior, I would think I was listening to someone with far more years of experience.”

After the mid-term elections in November, Murphy – who is often mistaken for a staff member or even an intern – may no longer be the youngest member of the Senate. However, according to colleagues, he never really seemed like he was.

Maybe it was his rapid ascension, or maybe it was his commitment to accessibility, or maybe, Llodra said, it was handling the shock of Newtown that gave Murphy the clout to take on the Senate’s top leaders while he was a freshman.

Or maybe, she said, it was because it was in the Sandy Hook firehouse on Dec. 14, 2012 where Chris Murphy had an epiphany.

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For one group of Vietnam veterans, the war memorial is a constant disappointment

WASHINGTON — Each time Steve Kraus traces his hand along the ledges of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he cringes a little. It’s a sensation so many of his brothers in combat feel each time they stare at the 58,000 names on those now-iconic black granite slabs. But for Kraus, the discomfort isn’t about his own experiences with the trials of a largely broken war.

For him, it’s because there are 74 names missing from the stone slabs. That’s 74 names that have haunted him for decades, and 74 names he can’t see each year when he visits the memorial.

“This is a great tribute,” Kraus, a Vietnam War veteran, said this week. “But it’s a sad place for us because the names aren’t there.”

Seventy-four sailors in the United States Navy died aboard the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) in the early morning hours on June 3, 1969 after the ship collided with an Australian aircraft carrier, the HMAS Melbourne. After being sliced in half by the massive Melbourne, part of the Evans was sunk, and most of the seamen on the front end of the ship never returned home. All but one body were lost at sea.

The freak accident occurred after the Evans took an aside from its trip to Vietnam to complete a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization training exercise in the South China Sea, about 100 miles away from the range in which the Pentagon defines the Vietnam war zone. Veterans of the ship say it was “conjecture” that the destroyer would return to combat following the exercise. But documentation of that doesn’t exist.

Those 74 names were never etched into history on the war memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense has repeatedly denied requests to add the names to the memorial.

For each of the former shipmen who at one time served aboard the Evans, visiting the war memorial is a devastating experience – one they say is like reliving the death of their brethren all over again. But still, they go.

Kraus, of California, was 21 when he served as a signalman the night the Evans sunk. He said the family of Thomas Belue Box was the first Evans-associated family to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1985 after it was erected, and the Alabama family was shocked to find that the name of their son, who gave his life aboard the Evans, wasn’t etched into the stone.

It was a similar experience for Eunice Sage, the mother of three brothers who all died after the collision sent part of the ship straight down into the ocean.

“Eunice Sage said her only reason to continue to live was to see those names on the wall,” Kraus said. “She felt that they needed to be there to be honored. Because her three boys died for that war, they need to be there with the other soldiers.”

Sage, who died in 2010, didn’t live to see it.

Louise Esola, an independent journalist from California who is releasing a book about the Evans saga in August, said the Sage mother “went to her grave thinking the government didn’t care about her loss.”

Esola said the situation bears striking resemblance to recent controversies surrounding how the United States treats war veterans. Veterans Affairs has come under fire within the last month for apparently not providing adequate medical care for veterans at VA facilities across the nation, leading to the resignation of VA Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki.

“This government is absolutely not treating war veterans properly, and it’s not just about the nightmare at the VA,” Esola said. “These missing 74 names on the wall is a slap in the face to not only the families and survivors, but to all the sailors who fought in Vietnam.”

But there is hope for these men and women who have been trying futilely for decades to properly recognize their fallen comrades. According to the office of Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, the House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill urging Department of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to add the names of the 74 sailors lost on the USS Frank E. Evans during the Vietnam War to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen said the department is aware of the concerns of Schiff and the USS Frank E. Evans Association, but wouldn’t say whether or not the department plans to take further action.

While Evans supporters know they face tough times ahead in getting the amendment through the Senate, they say they’re still hopeful that one day they can visit the Vietnam wall again and see those 74 names. Kraus said it would be “the highlight” of his life.

Ed Holsopple, an Evans veteran who served from 1964 to 1967, said the hope that he may one day see those names makes it easier to come back and visit the memorial.

“It’s breathtaking,” he said. “When you approach the memorial it’s kind of eerie. A calming silence comes over you, and the memories come flooding back. It’s quite sobering.”

For now, the association is operating with excitement, but skepticism. They don’t want to be let down once again by those black granite slabs.

Barbara Rikal’s husband Victor was killed in the Evans crash, and she said supporting the inscription of the names has given her a voice she’s desperately craved for years. She hopes that voice can urge the Department of Defense to recognize the “lost 74” soon.

Rikal, of Butler, Pa., said her son Victor, Jr., is suffering from severe pancreatic cancer. She wants to be sure he can see his father’s name in history before he dies.

“It’s still so emotional to face this, to know that I won’t be hearing his voice,” she said. “But in my heart I know this is going to happen.”

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