In recent days, some observers have discussed the possibility of targeted assistance to state Medicaid programs affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, the legislation proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) falls far short of that marker, providing a gusher of new spending with no long-term reforms to the program. Conservatives should insist on better.
The House’s bill, introduced late in the night Wednesday, contains several noteworthy flaws. By increasing the federal Medicaid match for all states by 8 percentage points for the entire public health emergency, it prevents the targeting of assistance to those states most affected by coronavirus cases.
Increasing the federal match for able-bodied adults to 98 percent encourages states to prioritize these individuals over disabled populations, while discouraging states from rooting out fraud. The legislation also precludes states from making any changes to their Medicaid programs for the duration of the bailout, reinstituting the fiscal straight-jacket contained in President Obama’s “stimulus” bill.
Like that 2009 package, Pelosi’s legislation proposes tens of billions in new spending for an already-sprawling Medicaid program without any structural changes. But if Pelosi or conservatives wish to pay for the short-term largesse via long-term changes to Medicaid, they need not look far: President Obama’s budgets included several proposals that, if enacted into law, would change incentives in Medicaid for the better.
One area ripe for reform: Medicaid provider taxes. Hospitals and other medical providers often support these taxes—the only entities that ever endorse new taxes on themselves—because they immediately come right back to the health care industry, after states use the tax revenue to draw down additional Medicaid matching funds. In 2011, none other than Joe Biden reportedly called this form of legalized money laundering a “scam.”
At minimum, Congress should immediately enact a moratorium on any new provider taxes, or any increases in existing provider taxes, cutting off the spigot of federal dollars via this budget gimmick. Lawmakers can echo President Obama’s February 2012 budget submission, which would have saved $21.8 billion by reducing states’ maximum provider tax rate.
That proposal delayed its effective date by three years, “giv[ing] states more time to plan”—which would in this case delay the changes until the coronavirus outbreak subsides. Another positive solution: Codifying the Trump administration’s Medicaid fiscal accountability rule, which includes welcome reforms reining in states’ most egregious accounting gimmicks, effective a future date.
More broadly, Congress should also consider the ways the existing matching rate formula encourages additional Medicaid spending by states. For instance, current law provides all states with a minimum 50 percent match rate, encouraging richer states to spend more on Medicaid. Absent that floor, 14 states—11 of them blue—would face a lower match; Connecticut’s rate would plummet from 50 percent to 11.69 percent.
Gradually lowering or eliminating the federal floor on the match rate, beginning 2-3 years hence, would discourage wealthier states from growing their Medicaid programs beyond their, and the federal government’s, control. Had lawmakers enacted this proposal as part of the 2009 “stimulus,” New York—which would have a federal match rate of 34.49 percent in the current fiscal year absent the 50 percent minimum—might have right-sized its Medicaid program well before the program’s current budget crunch.
Alternatively, Congress could embrace Obama’s budget proposal for a blended Medicaid matching rate. Replacing the current morass of varying federal match rates for different populations could save money, and eliminate the perverse incentives included in Obamacare, which gives states a higher match rate to cover able-bodied adults than individuals with disabilities.
Judging from her initial bid in the “stimulus” wars, Pelosi has taken Rahm Emanuel’s advice never to let a serious crisis go to waste. If she wishes to emulate Obama’s first chief of staff, conservatives should insist that she also enact some of the Medicaid changes proposed in Obama’s own budgets, to begin the process of reforming the program.