By Sally C. Pipes
With ObamaCare’s health insurance exchanges unraveling (especially HealthCare.gov, the federally run portal for the 36 states that decided not to set up their own exchanges), it’s safe to say that President Obama’s effort to expand coverage isn’t going well.
It’s about to get worse. Once the calendar flips to 2014, ObamaCare intends to expand Medicaid—the joint federal-state health insurance program for low-income Americans—to an additional 8.7 million people. But Medicaid isn’t working for the 62 million Americans it currently covers.
Taxpayers are struggling to shoulder the program’s $400-billion-plus price tag. Beneficiaries, meanwhile, are finding that doctors won’t accept their coverage. Expanding the program will only exacerbate both problems. Fortunately, some states are experimenting with reforms that inject private-sector discipline into Medicaid, thereby improving access to care and reducing costs. Other states should take note and adopt similar reforms.
At present, states largely determine who qualifies for Medicaid. Next year, ObamaCare will instruct them to cover everyone earning less than 138% of the poverty level. To entice states to follow through, the feds will cover the cost of the expansion for new enrollees for the first three years. States will have to share in the cost thereafter. Nevertheless, over half the states are refusing to follow ObamaCare’s dictates and not taking federal funds, exercising the right the U.S. Supreme Court gave them in June 2012 to do so.
Many states are wary of expanding Medicaid because those already in the program struggle to secure care. Between 2011 and 2012, about a third of primary care physicians weren’t accepting new Medicaid patients. A study from 2011 found that two-thirds of children on Medicaid couldn’t get an appointment with a specialist.
Doctors are reluctant to accept Medicaid because the program pays them so little. The entitlement reimburses physicians a little more than half the amount that private insurers do. In some cases, Medicaid’s reimbursements don’t cover the costs doctors incur seeing beneficiaries.
It’s no surprise, then, that the program fails to improve its beneficiaries’ health. A randomized study of Oregon’s Medicaid program published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that “Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes.”
For a failing program, Medicaid costs a lot. States spend more on Medicaid than anything else in their budgets—and collectively shoulder approximately one-third of the program’s more than $400 billion in annual costs.
ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion will only add to these costs. A new survey of state Medicaid offices shows that, in 2014, spending on the program will increase by 13% in states that have agreed to broaden eligibility in accordance with the law. It’s no wonder that many state leaders are looking to buck the Medicaid status quo.
In September 2013, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe secured a waiver enabling his state to use federal funds set aside for Medicaid to provide private coverage to 218,000 residents. The state’s Department of Health reports that more than 56,000 people have asked to participate in the Arkansas Healthcare Independence Program.
Arkansas officials believe they’ll save $670 million over 10 years, thanks to the waiver. Leaders in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Tennessee have expressed interest in creating similar “private options.” Arkansas’s approach empowers individuals to shop for insurance that suits their needs, rather than settling for one-size-fits-all policies.
Privately delivered Medicaid also permits state officials and patients to expand the availability of tax-advantaged health savings accounts (HSAs) to low-income families. These accounts give families the ability to shop around for care—and to save tax-free for the future whatever they don’t spend now. Encouraging such consumer-driven behavior in the health care marketplace will be crucial to reducing overall costs.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has adopted a different approach, proposing that private managed-care firms administer his state’s Medicaid program. Dubbed “Comprehensive Care Entities,” these companies would be tasked with overseeing patient care in a way that improves health outcomes while keeping costs down. They’d also compete against one another, creating an incentive to improve customer service, economic efficiency, and quality of care.
More state leaders should look for ways to use choice and competition to move past Medicaid’s status quo. If they don’t, they’ll simply perpetuate ObamaCare’s strategy of expanding failed programs and calling it progress.
Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Taube Fellow in Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. She is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute. A version of this article was originally published by Investors Business Daily.