Thursday, May 9, 2013

Medicaid expansion could change Kentucky's course, big time

By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

"Today we change the course of Kentucky's history."

It is not often that a public official can say such a thing with a large measure of credibility, but Gov. Steve Beshear legitimately raised that hope Thursday, as he announced that he would expand Kentucky's Medicaid program under federal health reform.

Beshear with graph predicting positive impact on budget
If Beshear's vision is fulfilled, Kentucky will no longer have one of the unhealthiest populations of any state, a change that will make it more attractive to employers, and any Kentuckian who wants health insurance will be able to get it.

It is in large measure the realization, in the state where all President Harry Truman's grandparents were born, of his 68-year-old dream of national health insurance. The statue of Truman's vice president, Alben Barkley of Paducah, seemed to shine a little more brightly than usual in the Capitol rotunda as the press-conference crowd dispersed.

But this is a project with many moving parts -- billions of dollars, thousands of health-care providers, hundreds of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries, and scores of political and bureaucratic decisions -- and much could go wrong.

Skeptics point to the problems with the managed-care Medicaid system that Beshear implemented too hurriedly, apparently to avoid complicating his November 2011 re-election, and argue that the program needs fixing before adding 300,000 new enrollees to the 825,000 already on the rolls. Beshear says he's tackling the problems, the program is "working pretty well" and the managed-care companies can handle the influx.

The skeptics also question whether the state can afford the match for the federal funds. "Broad and vague anxieties," Beshear called them, and he came armed with two studies concluding that expansion would actually gain the state money -- mainly because of the billions it will send to the state's health-care providers, creating more jobs, but also because many of the 300,000 or so newly eligible people are not expected to enroll, based on a Price Waterhouse Coopers study drawing on research by the Congressional Budget Office.

University of Louisville research
Preliminary estimates were that expansion would add 400,000 Kentuckians to the Medicaid rolls. However, the study estimated that only 308,000 will become eligible and that only 188,000 will enroll, thus costing the state much less than some expected when it has to match federal funds beginning in January 2017. The initial match will be 5 percent, rising to 10 percent in 2020. The estimated cost for the newly eligible in fiscal 2020-21 is $151 million, in a state budget that is likely to exceed $10 billion. (The state's current share of Medicaid costs, 29.5 percent, is about $1.5 billion a year.)

Those are just estimates. "I believe reality will dwarf those numbers on the spending side," Tea Party activist David Adams, who says he plans to challenge the plan in court, told reporters. But for the time being at least, Beshear has the numbers on his side, and he said they are "very conservative."

The governor said opponents of the plan "fall back on national politics" and say expansion means that Kentucky, a state that President Obama lost big both times, will be "supporting Obamacare. To them I say, 'Get over it.' . . . I'm going to do what's best for Kentucky's people, period." Asked why so many governors have rejected expansion, he said it was mostly "partisan politics."

Conservative columnist John David Dyche cites an Oregon study saying Medicaid is ineffective, but a Harvard School of Public Health study in three other states showed that expansion of Medicaid improves health and saves lives.

Beshear said the expansion, along with health insurance and subsidies available through a state-run exchange that is also part of health reform, would give the state a healthier workforce because studies show that people with health insurance are less likely to skip exams and let health conditions worsen and become costlier and more difficult to treat. "The lack of early care is one reason that Kentucky's health picture is so horrendous," he said.

Kentucky's workforce is one of the nation's least healthy, and the state has a disproportionate number of working-age people who are not in the workforce because of health problems. The state ranks first in smoking, cancer deaths and preventable hospitalizations; second in heart disease and poor physical-health days; third in heart attacks and poor mental-health days; and in the top 10 in diabetes,  cholesterol and sedentary lifestyles. That hurts the state's image as well as its economy, Beshear said. "There will be a huge economic effect for a healthier Kentucky."

He said most of the newly eligible people are not "freeloaders asking for a handout," but people who are working at jobs without health insurance. He said another 332,000 Kentuckians will get insurance through the state exchange, 276,000 of them with subsidies available to people with incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty level. Without Medicaid expansion, he said, 206,000 would not be eligible for Medicaid or a subsidy, and "We cannot leave those people stranded."

The health-reform law tried to force states into expanding Medicaid, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states should make the choice without fear of financial penalties. The law calls for expansion to cover people under 65 in households up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level -- currently $15,856 for an individual or $32,499 for a family of four.

Republicans can do little to stop the expansion. They control the state Senate, but Medicaid eligibility and benefit decisions belong to the executive branch, and even if a bipartisan legislative committee were to block the implementing regulations, Beshear could override it.

Or perhaps we should say he would override it. Emotional at times, Beshear called the move "the single most important decision of our lifetime for improving the health of Kentuckians" but said it was easy to make. As a governor who has failed to win his main campaign promise, expanded gambling, and has had relatively little money to spend because of the Great Recession, this is likely to be his largest legacy.

For details and background from the governor's office, click here. For Beshear's YouTube commentary on the issue, click here.

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