The debate on health care has seen numerous examples of hyperbolic rhetoric in recent months. But one series of allegations made earlier this month takes the cake, both for its factual ignorance and logical incoherence. That these demonstrably false allegations were made by a former senior official in the Obama administration makes them that much more disconcerting.
While many Americans were enjoying a long Independence Day weekend, former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Andy Slavitt took to Twitter to make the bold claim that Republicans were changing their health-care bill “not just to gut Medicaid, but to allow states to eliminate it.”
Before delving into his bill of particulars, it’s worth rebutting the overall claim that Republicans would allow states to “eliminate” Medicaid. That’s false—and provably so. Under our Constitution, the federal government cannot require states to participate in a program to begin with. By definition, the Republican health-care bill cannot “allow states to eliminate” Medicaid—states already have that right, and always will. That’s the point of the Tenth Amendment, and of federalism. Perhaps Slavitt needs to read the Constitution, and if he doesn’t have a copy, I will gladly lend him mine.
Moreover, Slavitt’s allegation reflects not just ignorance of fundamental constitutional principles, but the history of Medicaid itself. Arizona did not join the Medicaid program until 1982, 17 years after Medicaid’s creation, and nearly a decade after every other state joined the program. If, as Slavitt claims, Republicans are concocting some nefarious plot to “allow” states to “eliminate” Medicaid, then why did a Democratic Congress “allow” Arizona not to join Medicaid for nearly two decades after the program’s creation? Again, his allegations are, in a word, nonsense—because he either does not know, or does not wish to know, how Medicaid works.
These Waivers Ain’t New, Buddy
As Slavitt’s general claim is outlandishly ignorant, so too the details supposedly bolstering his assertions. Specifically, he claims that “the new state waiver process in the Senate bill already allows Medicaid to be replaced by giving [people] a subsidy.” Setting aside the question of whether giving some Medicaid beneficiaries access to private insurance coverage represents good policy, this claim likewise lacks any factual basis—because the waiver program he mentions has nothing to do with Medicaid.
Slavitt’s claim about a “new state waiver process” references Section 207 of the Senate bill (pages 138-145 here). That language doesn’t create a “new” state waiver process; rather, it amends an existing waiver program created by Section 1332 of Obamacare. Under Section 1332(a)(2) of the law, states can only use the innovation program to waive specific requirements: 1) the individual mandate to purchase coverage; 2) the employer mandate to offer coverage; 3) subsidies for exchange coverage, which states can take as a block grant and distribute to their citizens through other means; and 4) some insurance regulations, such as the definition of a qualified health plan, essential benefits, and actuarial value requirements (see page 98 here). While the Senate bill would change the way states could apply for waivers, it would not change what provisions states could waive.
To summarize: The waiver process outlined above—which Slavitt claims will be used to “eliminate” Medicaid by moving Medicaid beneficiaries off private coverage—says nothing about Medicaid. The Medicaid Payment and Access Commission, which advises Congress on Medicaid policies, admits this Section 1332 waiver process “cannot be used to change Medicaid.” Regulatory guidance put out by CMS while Andy Slavitt was running it noted the inability of Section 1332 waivers to reform Medicaid. And a reporter helpfully pointed all this out to Slavitt during his Twitter posts, yet he didn’t change his argument one whit, or even bother to acknowledge these inconvenient truths.
While at CMS, Slavitt ran an organization which, as the New York Times noted, “finances health care for one in three Americans and has a budget bigger than the Pentagon’s.” For that reason, there’s no other way to say it: Given the number of false statements in Slavitt’s Medicaid Twitter rant, he is either grossly misinformed about how Medicaid operates—in other words, he was never competent to run such a large organization in the first place—or he’s flat-out lying to the American public now.
Either way, his statements deserve much more scrutiny than they’ve received from an otherwise fawning press. Instead of writing pieces lionizing Slavitt as an Obamacare “rabble-rouser,” analysts should focus more on his misstatements and hypocrisy—his apparent failure to go on Obamacare himself while running the law’s exchanges, and his attacks on Republican plans to cap Medicaid spending, even though Obamacare did the exact same thing to Medicare. The American people deserve an honest, serious debate about the future of health care in our country. Unfortunately, they’re not getting it from Andy Slavitt.