Another day, another attack on Medicaid — and on the poor and working class.
According to a little-noticed McClatchy report this week, Arizona, Kansas, Utah, Maine and Wisconsin have appealed to the Trump administration to seek permission to put lifetime limits on Medicaid coverage for recipients they deem able-bodied. In other words, those five states want to time-limit or cap the total period of time an individual could receive Medicaid benefits over his or her lifetime.
There is no word on whether the administration will agree to this, but it is worth noting that it comes on the heels of its decision to allow Kentucky and Indiana to mandate that many of their able-bodied Medicaid recipients meet work requirements.
If successful, this push for lifetime limits will constitute another way to try to undermine the overall Medicaid program, including the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion. Arizona opted into the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and voters in Maine approved a referendum to do the same, though that’s still up in the air. If the Trump administration signals that it will approve lifetime caps, other states that expanded Medicaid could follow. As a result, this could end up being a way to cut back on Medicaid both in states that didn’t expand the program as part of the ACA, and in states that did — further undermining the ACA’s historic coverage gains, just as work requirements will inevitably do.
As Jessica Schubel, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, put it, the latest proposed change, when taken along with the work requirements, suggests the administration is “hell-bent on trying to keep people out of coverage.”
Direct attacks on Medicaid are not popular, as President Trump and Republicans learned last year during their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Polls have also found broad opposition to cutting Medicaid.
But that doesn’t mean Republicans are giving up. Both the work requirements and the proposed lifetime limits should be understood as using bureaucracy to facilitate a backdoor attack on Medicaid. As Rebecca Vallas, a vice president at the Center for American Progress, told me, work requirements ultimately are really about putting up “roadblocks and red-tape obstacles” in the way of access to health coverage. They discourage applicants from completing the process of getting benefits, usually to reduce spending by the states.
Work requirements — which have been championed by Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — rest on a false premise. It’s not true — despite myths claiming otherwise — that there are well-paying jobs out there for everyone who is willing and able to do them. Workers in the gig economy find temporary positions that come and go. Other low-wage workers can find their hours fluctuating enormously and with little notice. Medicaid is not simply there for people who are unemployed, or not a part of the workforce, but also as a support for people who are working, but not earning an adequate wage to afford health insurance.
Lifetime limits impose another hurdle on those who need Medicaid. Each state is proposing doing this in a different way. Utah’s proposed lifetime limit would be a total of five years. Wisconsinites would hit the limit at four years. In Kansas, at three years. Three of the states would count time working and not working while receiving Medicaid toward the limit, while two would only subject those receiving Medicaid while unemployed to the limit. Utah would only subject childless adults to it. All of these changes would be complex to navigate and, if they are green-lit, will not only push people out of the program when they hit the limits, but possibly discourage them from applying at all.
Medicaid lifetime limits and work requirements also function as cloaked attacks on the concept of universal health coverage. Medicaid functions as a guarantee of health coverage for people who do not have employer provided insurance, as well as the poor and working class. Lifetime limits — such as work requirements — throw more obstacles in the path of that idea, since they will, at some point, likely leave many without even that baseline access to health coverage.
If you believe universal health care is a right, lifetime limits are not the way to go. Caps on the time people can receive coverage would ultimately have the same effect as work requirements — a certain percentage of people who are ill, or will become ill, will not be able to easily access medical services when they need them.
Lifetime limits on Medicaid eligibility, like work requirements, take us backwards: they reestablish a principle that the ACA tried to abolish, albeit incompletely: that healthcare is not a right, but a privilege.