What would conservatives do with Medicaid?

State-level Republican governors and legislatures are using the voluntary Medicaid expansion to leverage conservative policy concessions from the Obama administration. In states like Missouri and Pennsylvania, this has meant trying to enact work requirements for Medicaid. This would mean that, to receive Medicaid coverage, low-income Americans must be working, actively seeking out work, or participating in a job-training program.

This would be a significant departure from how Medicaid programs are currently constructed. No state has a work requirement for Medicaid — the original Medicaid statute prohibits conditioning coverage on work participation. And the Obama administration has flatly refused to grant a Medicaid waiver for proposed work requirement rules, so these state proposals are unlikely to become law anytime soon.

Nonetheless, the conservative instinct to condition health insurance for the poor on working is telling. And if a Republican wins the White House in 2016, red states would gain a new hearing to enact these ideas through federal waivers.

Interestingly, the attempt to tie Medicaid to working comes at the exact moment that health economists and policy wonks across the political spectrum are aiming to decouple of health insurance from employment for everyone else. Most economists consider traditional employer-sponsored insurance to be inefficient, as it locks workers into their current jobs for fear of losing coverage. They’ve therefore supported reforms to let individuals purchase insurance outside of their workplaces, like ObamaCare’s exchanges.

Some conservatives favor doing just the opposite when it comes to insurance for the poor. True, Medicaid coverage doesn’t have the same job-lock issues as employer-sponsored insurance. It’s a single-payer system, so it follows you from job to job.

But the urge to link Medicaid to employment flows from the conservative obsession with legislating work incentives for the poor. To some conservatives, any government benefit that reaches the poor must be conditioned on working, seemingly because poor people supposedly need constant shocks and prods to keep them employed.

Prominent conservative health economist Avik Roy showed the foolishness of this line of thinking in a recent interview. Roy, the author of How Medicaid Fails the Poor, recently released a conservative healthcare reform proposal detailing how we can “transcend” ObamaCare, using its existing structure to achieve conservative policy preferences.

In the interview, Roy explained — and justified — why his proposed revamp of Medicaid doesn’t include a work requirement:

 “[S]omebody asked me the other [d]ay, he said ‘Avik, is there a work requirement … ‘ (A conservative asked me this …) ‘Is there a work requirement in your plan for eligibility for these exchange subsidies for low-income people?’ and I said no.

“The guy said: ‘Well that’s a problem. We should have a work requirement.’

“I said to him: ‘Would you ask for a work requirement for a low-income unemployed parent to send his child to primary school?’ Of course he didn’t answer.”

Now of course, there may be conservatives for whom this point isn’t an argument-stopper — they may very well support work requirements for parents to send their kids to public school. After all, we’ve seen recent conservative discomfort with giving school kids government handouts in the form of free school lunches.

Though he defends public health insurance for the poor from shortsighted work requirements, Roy is hardly a fan of Medicaid. In Transcending ObamaCare, he argues that it generates little in the way of beneficial health outcomes for the poor in comparison to going uninsured.

Roy acknowledges that the root cause of this has been low Medicaid reimbursement rates to physicians. Doctors are reluctant to take Medicaid patients because Medicaid pays so little. Studies have found Medicaid patients are denied doctors appointments six times more often than those with private insurance — even when they tell the doctor that their child has a serious medical illness.

Why does Medicaid pay so much less? It’s because of the quirky and inefficient cooperative federal structure of Medicaid. “Medicaid is jointly funded by state governments and the federal government,” Roy explains. “Because neither party has full responsibility for the program, both parties have engaged in irresponsible behavior.” Federal regulations prohibit states from charging more to Medicaid patients, and states have responded to budgetary crises by slashing reimbursement rates, plunging as low as 29 percent of private reimbursement rates in New York.

(It should be noted that comparing Medicaid and private insurance reimbursement makes Medicaid look exceptionally bad. It fares a little better when compared to what Medicare pays, as calculated by the Kaiser Family Foundation. For instance, New York’s Medicaid program pays 55 percent of the Medicare rate, and the average state pays about two-thirds of what Medicare pays. Still underfunded, but a bit better.)

Roy’s solution is to blow up Medicaid and give the poor subsidized private insurance on health exchanges. Very well. It’s a totally legitimate proposal that would extend ObamaCare’s subsidy-exchange structure to those below 133 percent of the federal poverty line — the current cut-off point between expanded Medicaid and ObamaCare’s marketplaces.

And in the Obama era of liberal pragmatism, it’s a proposal in spirit with the technocratic amenability to using any practical means to achieve progressive goals. Obama wanted to enact affordable universal coverage in the United States — long a liberal goal — but didn’t mind using Mitt Romney’s private insurance-based marketplace structure to get us there, rather than insisting on liberal means like single-payer.

In the Medicaid expansion already, the administration has been willing to accept conservative ideas on how to extend health insurance to the poor. Indeed, Roy’s plan would largely mimic the so-called “private option” that Arkansas negotiated with the Department of Health and Human Services, using Medicaid funds to subsidize private insurance for those newly eligible for Medicaid coverage.

These are fine ideas, but are hardly the only way to heal Medicaid’s woes. As Roy explained, Medicaid’s problems stem from low reimbursement rates, which in turn stem from its inefficient joint federal-state financing structure. So why not simply federalize Medicaid? The federal government is better positioned to sustain social insurance programs than the stares are. It faces less budgetary pressure, particularly during recessions, because (unlike the states) it can run up deficit spending when social welfare program rolls expand in a weakened economy. This stabilizes financing for these sorts of programs, preventing them from being hollowed out by emergency state budget cuts.

The federal government could then raise reimbursement rates to something closer to what Medicare pays. And to get rid of any lingering discrimination against Medicaid patients, it could simply make such discrimination illegal, relying on testers in the same way housing discrimination laws are enforced.

Yes, this would cost the federal government more, but it would also relieve the states of a significant budgetary burden. It would also better serve the poor, as historically, the federal government has been a far better steward of low-income programs than the states have been. (See welfare reform / TANF; the 24 Medicaid expansion opt-out states; etc.)  And it might even save the government money in the longterm by letting the poor get more check-ups and preventive care, keeping the government from footing costly ER and advanced illness bills later on.

Still, Roy’s proposal is a refreshingly thoughtful constructive critique of ObamaCare — an all-too-rare conservative feat in the years since healthcare reform. If nothing else, maybe it will teach conservatives to love (or at least begrudgingly accept) ObamaCare by showing that it lays a foundation that they too can work with, finally breaking that fever that has plagued conservative politics since 2009. And though Roy would revamp Medicaid, at least doesn’t want to shackle the uninsured poor with work requirements.

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