It is widely understood that the rapid increase in spending for entitlements (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) is the main driver of our debt problem. Anything that can be done to get spending for these programs under control is of great value.
The problem with Medicaid is that a fixed percentage of each state’s costs is paid for by the federal government. The more a state spends, the more that is contributed by the federal government which is a disincentive for states to control their own spending. From 1989 to 2013, the share of state budgets devoted to Medicaid rose from 9% to 19%. This upward trend is a problem for both state and federal government and is clearly unsustainable.
One way to change the spending incentive is to turn Medicaid into a block-grant program whereby the federal government contributes a specific amount of money to each state each year and gives states more leeway in designing their own programs. States would then have a much bigger incentive to hold down costs and the flexibility to be able to do it. Progress is being made in this direction with the use of waivers:
Rhode Island received a waiver in 2009 to try out various cost-saving measures such as wellness programs, co-payments, etc. It has been quite successful and very well received.
Last year Pennsylvania agreed to expand Medicaid to an additional 500,000 people along with a waiver allowing people above the poverty line to be charged premiums of up to 2% of their household income as well as being charged an $8 copayment for use of emergency rooms.
Additional states such as Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida are also considering Medicaid expansions and likely will be influenced by the possibility of receiving similar waivers.
Waivers are not as cost effective as block-grant funding but they are an improvement over the existing one-size-fits-all federal rules. If more individual states are able to show that waivers really do work to reduce costs, this will increase the likelihood of implementing a block-grant system.
One of the many controversies involving the Affordable Care Act concerns the expansion of Medicaid to cover low income people up to 138% of the federal poverty level. As Robert Samuelson reported in the Washington Post a few days ago, “The Real Medicaid Problem,” 24 states have refused to expand Medicaid coverage even though the federal government will pay 100% of all additional costs until 2017. As Mr. Samuelson points out, the underlying issue is a matter of cost:
The basic Medicaid program is funded with a fixed percentage of each state’s costs paid by the federal government. This means that the more a state spends, the more is contributed by the federal government. From 1989 to 2013, the share of state budgets devoted to Medicaid has risen from 9% to 19%. This upward trend is clearly unsustainable.
In Medicaid, children and adults up to age 65 represent three-fourths of beneficiaries, but only one-third of costs. The quarter of beneficiaries who are aged or disabled are responsible for two-thirds of costs.
More than 60% of nursing home residents are on Medicaid.
There is no assurance that the federal share of the expanded coverage will continue at the announced rate of 90% after 2017 because the federal government is in much worse financial shape than are most states.
An interesting Op Ed appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal, “The Smarter Way to Provide Health Care for the Poor,” written by Mike Pence, the Governor of Indiana. In 2008 Indiana set up the Healthy Indiana Plan to better serve low income Indianans. It now provides Health-Savings Accounts to 40,000 low income citizens, with very good results. Indiana is applying for a waiver to the ACA to use Medicaid expansion funds to provide HIP to all low income families up to 138% of the poverty level ($33,000 for a family of four).
Clearly, individual states, when offered the opportunity, are quite capable of coming up with innovative solutions for difficult problems.
A good way to resolve the problem of state resistance to Medicaid expansion is to fundamentally change Medicaid into a block grant program whereby the federal government contributes a specific amount of money to each state each year. Then the states design their own programs to meet their own needs. Block grant funding for Medicaid is a common sense approach to address one aspect of our huge fiscal problem in an intelligent way!