Medicaid expansion is supposedly a no-brainer. It’ll provide insurance for a lot low income people. It’s free federal money. And it’ll create jobs and pump up local economies. So why are the 50 states almost evenly divided on whether to take this gift horse or send it out to pasture?
It’s because a lot of governors and legislatures have decided that at best the jury’s still out on whether expansion is a good idea; and more likely it’s a bad idea that will hurt many of the people it’s supposed to help and turn into an albatross around taxpayers’ necks.
I’m open to being proven wrong, but I agree with those who say that Medicaid expansion as laid out in Obamacare is both bad welfare policy and bad economic policy. It’s bad welfare policy because it shifts primarily young, able and to a large extent childless adults into a system with demonstrably inferior access to care, and then traps them there. Forty four percent of the newly eligible would be adults under the age of 34, and seventy five percent would be childless.[i] In addition, a fourth of all new enrollees would be dumped into Medicaid from private insurance plans that almost always provide better access to care than Medicaid.[ii] The difference is in having health insurance versus getting health care.
I have a fishing license. That gives me the right to stand in a river waving my fly rod around, but it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll catch any fish. Same goes for health insurance versus health care. Medicaid recipients encounter barriers to primary care at nearly twice the rate of those with private insurance.[iii] Because of this lack of access to primary care, they then show up in emergency rooms at rates nearly twice those of the privately insured, but sicker and much more expensive to treat.[iv] Shoveling well over 70,000 new Montanans into this system[v] while also decreasing provider reimbursements under Obamacare won’t make access to quality care any easier for these folks or for anyone else in the state.
Medicaid expansion is also bad economic policy. In fact, it’s pure crony capitalism. You can’t swing a dead cat in Helena right now without hitting a hospital or pharmaceutical lobbyist trying to get their surgical gloves into taxpayers’ wallets. Yes, there’s good evidence that the “free” money coming from Washington may create around twelve thousand jobs in Montana; but will those jobs create health benefits that are commensurate with their costs? If not, the money is better left in the private economy where it can be spent more productively. A recent New England Journal of Medicine article said that “Treating the health care system like a (wildly inefficient) jobs program conflicts directly with the goal of ensuring that all Americans have access to care at an affordable price.”[vi] And anyway, it’d be much cheaper for Montana taxpayers to just put those who are eligible for federal subsidies into the new exchanges and let Washington pay their entire bill. It’s free money, right?
Except that it’s not. It’s taxpayer money whether you write the check to Helena or to Washington. The net cost to Montana taxpayers of Medicaid expansion through 2021 is over $50 million according to one estimate,[vii] and closer to $100 million according to another.[viii] That’s after the “free” money and jobs and tax revenues, and assumes the federal government will keep its promise to cover 100% of expansion costs in the early years and 90% later on, despite the fact that even the President’s own past two budgets included reductions in those commitments.[ix]
In reality nobody knows what it will cost, but there’s precious little precedent for entitlement spending coming in below or even near initial estimates. In 1965 Medicare was estimated to cost $9 billion annually by 1990. The actual cost in 1990 was $67 billion.[x] There’s no reason to think Medicaid expansion estimates will fare any better, and Montana taxpayers would be on the hook for the difference since it’s politically unlikely that these entitlements would be reversed once they’re put in place.
So why not wait a couple of years? Let’s see how things go in California and Illinois and other bastions of state fiscal responsibility, and then take a look at what’s working and what’s not so we can make an informed decision. Or, we could try true reform and turn Medicaid into a system that really does provide quality access to quality care for more people who need it. We’d do that by reconnecting the patient to the provider and the cost to create responsible consumers rather than filtering both the funding and the care through a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. But that’s a topic for another day.
[i] The Urban Institute, “Opting in to the Medicaid Expansion under the ACA: Who Are the Uninsured Adults Who Could gain Health Insurance Coverage,” August 2012, pp. 8-9.
[ii] University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, “An Estimate of the Economic Ramifications Attributable to the Potential Medicaid Expansion on the Montana Economy,” January 2013, p. 6.
[iii] 16.3% of Medicaid patients encountered barriers versus 8.9% of those with private insurance. Annals of Emergency Medicine, “National Study of Barriers to Timely Primary Care and Emergency Department Utilization Among Medicaid Beneficiaries,” 2012, p. 4.
[v] Urban Institute, op. cit., p. 18 and BBER, op. cit., p. 7.
[vi] Katherine Baicker, Ph.D. and Amitabh Chandra, Ph.D, The New England Journal of Medicine, “The Health Care Jobs Fallacy, June 28 2012, p. 2435.
[vii] BBER, op. cit., p. 29.
[viii] The Heritage Foundation, “Obamacare and the Medicaid Expansion: How Does Your State Fare?” March 5th 2013, http://blog.heritage.org/2013/03/05/obamacare-medicaid-expansion-state-by-state-charts/.
[ix] Charles Blahous, Mercatus Center, “The Affordable Care Act’s Optional Medicaid Expansion: Considerations Facing State Governments,” 2013, p. 32.
[x] Conn Carroll, The Foundry, “Health Care Reform Cost Estimates: What is the Track Record?” August 4th 2009, http://blog.heritage.org/2009/08/04/health-care-reform-cost-estimates-what-is-the-track-record/.