Might We See a Medicaid Wave Start Next Week?

[This column appeared on the Health Affairs blog on Thursday, November 1.]

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states must have an option whether or not to expand Medicaid as authorized in the Affordable Care Act, expansion has been a long, slow slog, state by state, inch by inch.  While blue states had mostly lined up to expand Medicaid by 2013, nearly every purple and red state proved to be a battlefield.  Today, 19 states have yet to expand, with 31 in the “yes” column (plus the District of Columbia) (see table 1).  The last state to expand, #31, was Louisiana in mid-2016.  But, might a mighty Medicaid wave be coming courtesy of the November 6th elections?  The answer is a definite maybe.

Right now, all that’s certain is that Virginia will become state #32 to expand Medicaid in January. The state enacted the 400,000-person expansion last May, albeit with a “work requirement” to be filed with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) sometime in 2019.

Maine is certain to become #33 early next year if Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills wins the Governor’s Chair.  In November 2017, Maine voters approved expansion—59-41 percent—in a state ballot initiative.  Departing Republican Governor Paul LePage refused to implement the expansion in spite of strong legislative support to do so, as well as an order from Maine’s highest court.  In previous years, the Legislature failed by only a small number of votes to override LePage’s vetoes (5 times).  Progressive forces expect to pick up state legislative seats on November 6th, so it’s also possible expansion could happen with a new Republican governor, supportive or not.

State Adoption Of ACA Medicaid Expansion (By Year) 

SOURCE: Advisory Board.  “Where the States Stand on Medicaid Expansion.”  June 8 2018.  Accessed Oct. 29 2018 at: https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/resources/primers/medicaidmap 

Medicaid On the Ballot

Activists in three states—Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah—are standing in the wings hoping to be states #34, 35, and 36 depending on the outcomes of state ballot initiatives in each of them on November 6th. Montana has an initiative on the ballot to continue its expansion with dedicated funding.

While Idaho’s departing Governor Butch Otter fought consistently against Medicaid expansion throughout his tenure, he recently changed his position and announced his support for the Medicaid ballot initiative. Republican gubernatorial candidate Brad Little says he will respect the ballot initiative’s outcome—even though the measure does not specify how to finance the 10 percent financing match states will need to pay by 2020 (7 percent in 2019). Two organizations, Idahoans for Healthcare and Reclaim Idaho raised $594,191 by the late September reporting deadline, while the opposition Work, Not ObamaCare has raised $29,999.  Idaho’s Hospital and Medical Associations contributed nearly $200,000 to the “yes” effort.  Recent polling shows 66 percent support, including 77 percent from independents and 53 percent from Republicans.  The yes campaign co-chair is Republican State Representative Christy Perry.

Nebraska previously did not have enough support to overturn a Governor’s veto against expansion.  Nebraska Governor Pete Rickets maintains his opposition as he coasts toward an easy re-election.  But it’s a spirited race for Nebraska Initiative 427, the Medicaid Expansion Initiative that would cover an estimated 90,000 low-income Nebraskans. The lead organization—Insure the Good Life—has raised $1.69 million as of late September to support a yes vote, versus $0 by the opposition Americans for Prosperity. The “yes” camp’s largest contributor is a national progressive political action committee called the “Fairness Project” which also backed the 2017 Maine Medicaid initiative and which has donated $1.19 million.  Other key supporters include the Nebraska Hospital Association, the state health center association, Nebraska AARP and 24 other organizations.

Of the three ballot initiative campaigns, Utah’s is the most compelling.  Proposition 3 would raise the state’s sale tax from 4.70 to 4.85 percent to fully finance the expansion for 150,000 low-income Utah residents.  In 2021, that is projected to raise $88 million to cover the state’s projected $78 million share of the $846 million total expansion cost (the federal government pays the rest).  A February 2018 poll showed 68 percent support among Utah voters.  As in Nebraska, the national Fairness Project is driving the campaign, providing $2.7 of the $2.83 million raised as of late September.  A wide array of health care and religious organizations are public supporters. No organization is registered with the state in public opposition to the initiative, as of late September.

To thwart the proposal, in March, Governor Gary Herbert signed House Bill 472 into law to expand Medicaid for individuals with household incomes no higher than 95 percent of the federal poverty line, as opposed to 138 percent in Proposition 3, as authorized under the ACA.  HB472 would also impose work requirements on many enrollees and would cover 90,000 as opposed to the initiative’s 150,000.  Earlier this year, the Trump Administration rejected a plan similar to HB472 that was advanced by Oklahoma to expand Medicaid eligibility no higher than 100 percent of the federal poverty level.  So it is unclear whether the Trump Administration will allow the Utah HB472 expansion to go forward.

Montana is another state with a Medicaid expansion ballot initiative facing the voters on November 6th, but to continue the existing expansion. The state expanded Medicaid in 2015, though only through 2019. The November 6th ballot will present an initiative, I-185, to continue expansion past 2019 by raising tobacco taxes by $2 a pack as the state’s funding source. Healthy Montana for I-185 backers have raised $4.8 million and are battling the tobacco industry in the form of Montanans Against Tax Hikes (MATH) which has invested at least $12 million to defeat the initiative; 97 percent of the MATH’s money has come from Altria Client Services, maker of Marlboro cigarettes and other smoking products. If voters approve, the expansion will continue without restraints. If the referendum fails, the legislature still could pass a new funding law, likely with a work requirement attached.

Other Election Day Impacts

Of the 14 remaining non-expansion states, the November 6th results may have consequential impact.  If Democratic candidates win currently competitive gubernatorial races in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Wisconsin, and pick up legislative seats, that could alter the Medicaid expansion equation.  This would be especially true in Kansas where prior expansion efforts were thwarted by a narrow inability to override gubernatorial vetoes by only three votes. In other states, notably North Carolina with Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, significant Democratic gains in the state legislature may also have a consequential impact.

Some noteworthy features of this issue are worth considering.  First, in many of these remaining states with Republican control, the price of expansion is likely to include work requirements on many newly eligible enrollees—as occurred in Virginia this past year. Unless ruled illegal by the federal courts, this national experiment will more than likely run at least for the duration of Republican control of the executive branch. As is apparent from the track record in Arkansas thus far, this is about values and ideology more than dollars and sense.

Second, after six years of fighting the Medicaid expansion wars, it is clear that most expansion opponents are not going to change their minds.  Not much is left to say that hasn’t been said countless times before.  As we saw in Virginia, a change of mind accompanies a change in occupants of legislative and gubernatorial seats.  And in the four November 6th ballot initiative states, if successful, we should anticipate that one or more of the affected Governors may imitate Maine Governor LePage in seeking to block expansion in spite of voter sentiment.

Third, in spite of all the uproar, it is significant that not one expansion state has gone back on it, or even considered doing so.  The closest an expansion came to a rollback was the election of hard right conservative Matt Bevin as Kentucky’s governor in 2015.  Bevin abandoned his pledge to repeal Kentucky’s ground-breaking and successful Medicaid expansion early in his gubernatorial campaign, and never returned to that stance, turning to mandatory work requirements as the next best thing.

Much like how the public’s support for banning pre-existing condition exclusions has become calcified in the public’s mind from the battles of 2017 and 2018, similarly the expansion of Medicaid has become hard-wired into public consciousness in the states that adopted it.

I have yet to read an insider’s account on how and why the U.S. Supreme Court lined up 7 votes to secure their atrocious 2012 ruling to make Medicaid expansion an option for states.  It is true that their decision played a role in compelling Americans to grapple with and understand the rationale and importance for Medicaid expansion.  But at what a damn price!

Author: John McDonough

I offer insights and opinions on how to improve health care systems for everyone

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