By Becky Orr

Expanding Medicaid coverage in Wyoming is the right thing to do, Gov. Matt Mead told a group of like-minded residents Monday.

The state's Republican governor once strongly opposed Medicaid expansion. He explained why he changed his mind during a pro-expansion rally in Cheyenne that came just hours after he made similar comments in his annual State of the State address to kick off the 2016 legislative session.

"The Wyoming way is to take care of your neighbor. We have an opportunity to do this," he said.

About 150 people attended the rally, which was sponsored by the Wyoming Association of Churches, according to the Rev. Rodger McDaniel. He is the pastor of Highlands United Presbyterian Church, which hosted the rally.

The association is part of Healthy Wyoming, a group of community and business leaders, doctors, nurses, and other health-care providers who support Medicaid expansion.

Roughly 20,000 people in Wyoming would be eligible for health insurance coverage if the expansion occurred.

Expanding Medicaid health coverage would keep federal taxpayer dollars in the state, provide money for other needed state programs and help Wyoming's hospitals, the governor said.

However, a panel of state legislators voted last month to reject Mead's call for accepting expansion.

Wyoming rejects more than $260 million every two years from the federal government because it does not support expansion, Mead said.

"My Republican friends aren't necessarily with me on this. But they should be," he said.

Supporters of expansion need to contact their legislators, he said.

"We need a full-court press," Mead said. "It is our duty and our responsibility to do the best job we can to people we serve."

Jason Bloomberg of Cheyenne was "tickled pink to see Matt Mead come here." He said he is optimistic that legislators will change their minds and move toward expansion.

McDaniel also spoke in favor of expansion.

"This is not just a political issue; this is a spiritual issue because of the significant impact it has directly on the lives of so many people in our families, our neighborhoods, communities and throughout the state," McDaniel said.

State lawmakers will have to cut $33 million from the proposed budget to avoid expanding Medicaid, McDaniel said. Cuts are proposed in areas that help the elderly, disabled and mentally ill, he said.

Dr. Jean Halpern of Cheyenne serves on the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center board. He also is a retired kidney doctor.

He said that over five years, the local hospital writes off about $90 million in costs.

Hospital leaders have developed a pie-in-the-sky hope of a $163 million project that would create a behavioral health center to keep teenagers who need mental health services in town for care. If they could recoup some of the $90 million the hospital writes off, the money could be put toward such programs, he said.

Wolfstart Duran, 15, lives in Fort Washakie and is part of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center. She told the crowd that her family would benefit from Medicaid expansion for medical care.

"What we mostly rely on is prayer," she said, because of limited access to health-care services.

Betsey Taggart of Cheyenne attended the rally and said she plans to contact legislators.

"I was heartened by the governor's change of heart," she said.

(c)2016 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)