Sunday, May 26, 2013

Medicaid expansion will leave out many of the poorest: What is wrong with this picture?

In States’ Policies on Health Care Exclude Some of the Poorest, in the New York Times on May 25, 2013, Robert Pear describes how this bizarre situation has come to pass. Basically, it is because the programs established by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of insurance exchanges and federal subsidies for low-income people, via tax credits, was never the ACA’s plan for the lowest-income Americans. They were supposed to be covered by expansion of the Medicaid program, a federal-state partnership that covers some poor people and varies widely, both in terms of who is covered and what that coverage consists of, from state to state. Recognizing that, coming out of the “Great Recession”, many states were strapped for money, the ACA also included a provision that the first 3 years of the expansion would be paid entirely by the federal government, and that the feds would pay 90% of the cost thereafter.

This, however, was not sufficient inducement for many states to agree to expand Medicaid. They might have if the Supreme Court decision that found the ACA constitutional had not excluded one provision – that, unless the states’ expanded Medicaid they would lose all their current Medicaid funding. The result was the decision in many states to not participate in Medicaid expansion, thus effectively leaving out the mechanism for covering the poorest; tax credits were designed to provide subsidies for those who earned from the poverty level to 4 times the poverty level ($11,490 to $45,960 for a single person) with Medicaid expansion covering those below it. However, many states (virtually all Republican-controlled, although not all those that are Republican controlled) have opted out of this program, leaving those below the poverty level uncovered. The head of the Louisiana Primary Care Association notes that “If the breadwinner in a family of four works full time at a job that pays $14 an hour and the family has no other income, he or she will be eligible for insurance subsidies. But if they make $10 an hour, they will not be eligible for anything.”

 While these states may not have more than half the country’s total population, they do, according to the Times, have more than half the uninsured (they include Texas, the nation’s second most populous state, which has an uninsured rate of about 30%, and Florida, the fourth most-populous, whose legislature has decided not to expand Medicaid despite the support of Republican governor Rick Scott for expansion).  “The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 25 million people will gain insurance under the new health care law. Researchers at the Urban Institute estimate that 5.7 million uninsured adults with incomes below the poverty level could also gain coverage except that they live in states that are not expanding Medicaid.”

The state “featured” in Pear’s article is my home state of Kansas, possibly because of the willingness of the state’s insurance commissioner, Sandy Praeger (pictured here with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who, the Times does not indicate, was formerly Governor of Kansas, and, before that, Praeger’s predecessor as insurance commissioner), to discuss the situation. Kansas, historically not one of the more generous states for Medicaid, “…provides no coverage for able-bodied childless adults. And adults with dependent children are generally ineligible if their income exceeds 32 percent of the poverty level.” Thus, Ms. Praeger said, “In most cases, she said, adults with incomes from 32 percent to 100 percent of the poverty level ($6,250 to $19,530 for a family of three) ‘will have no assistance.’ They will see advertisements promoting new insurance options, but in most cases will not learn that they are ineligible until they apply.” Whoops. Gotta fix that.

Or not. There is no plan, in Kansas, Texas, Florida, or any of the other states not opting for Medicaid expansion to help to cover these people. Most of the arguments you will hear against doing so cite “costs too much money”, but this is, simply, baloney. The governors and legislatures currently running these states do not, actually, believe in covering anyone (except, of course, themselves and their friends). They believe this is “socialism”. What they believe in is cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthiest individuals and corporations, which Kansas has  aggressively done since Governor Brownback was elected in 2010. The ostensible argument, from the governor, is that low taxes will lead to greater business growth, which will benefit the economy, and help to balance the budget. The first is your basic “trickle down”, proved wrong in every instance since it was first made popular in the 1980s, and the second is a negative tautology – even if business does grow, the extremely low tax rates will make balancing the budget very hard. Indeed, this year Governor Brownback is stumping the state to drum up support for not cutting the higher education budget, but this seems to be falling on deaf ears in the legislature, which sees such spending cuts as yet another opportunity to cut taxes.

Praeger, as insurance commissioner, does not make the decision about Medicaid expansion, but her office is responsible for informing the public about its opportunities to gain insurance on the exchanges (that will be federally-run, because Kansas has also opted out of running its own) and also informing those “poorest of the poor” that the ads for coverage will not be for them. It is obvious that she feels very badly about it; this former state senator and mayor of Lawrence, and former chair of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) is a person with a heart and a concern for people (yes, Virginia, there are Republicans with a heart, and Kansas used to be full of them!). The insurance commissioner does make some decisions; Sebelius, in 2002, blocked the sale of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Kansas to the for-profit Anthem, stating it would not be in the best interest of the people of Kansas. Many credit that very popular decision for helping her to win the governorship later that year (yes, Virginia, we sometimes elected Democrats as governor!).

It is way too early to know how these decisions will affect elections at either the state or national level. The Times article indicates that “Administration officials said they worried that frustrated consumers might blame President Obama rather than Republicans like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana [and one might add Kansas], who have resisted the expansion of Medicaid.” However, and very unfortunately, the poorest of the poor do not vote in high numbers. Perhaps the opposite will happen, with those slightly more well-off, who vote at slightly higher rates, crediting the Obama administration for their new coverage, and blaming the state governors and legislatures.

And, of course, this does not even take into account undocumented people living in the US, many of them the breadwinners for families that are composed of citizens, “legal” and “illegal” members.  Children who were born here are citizens (and eligible for programs such as Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, S-CHIP) while often their parents are eligible for nothing. This is not the way to improve health, or to foster family values. But it is consistent with another, anti-immigrant, agenda.

Other first-world countries cover everyone. Not some, many or most people. Everyone. They do it in different ways: Britain has a National Health Service, Canada a single-payer health system which is the government, Switzerland a multi-payer (private) system with a required benefits package and pricing structure. Other countries, Japan and Taiwan, France and Germany, do it differently, but they all cover everyone. We could too.

It’s sad for all of us that we won’t. And it’s life and death for the neediest.
More data from American Medical News: Millions uninsured on patchwork Medicaid expansion map

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