With the debate about the Affordable Care Act drawing so much scrutiny, a broader Republican agenda to fundamentally change the federal role in health care is flying under the radar. It’s the most important issue in health care we are not debating.
Many Republicans in Congress want to convert Medicaid to a block-grant program and transform Medicare from a plan that guarantees care into one in which seniors would receive a set amount of money to purchase coverage. Meanwhile, Republicans would replace existing subsidies for premiums under the ACA with less generous tax credits — all while eliminating the expansion of Medicaid that enables states to cover low-income childless adults.
Taken together, these changes would amount to a fundamental rewriting of the health-care role of the federal government. They would end the entitlement nature of Medicaid and Medicare, cap future increases in federal health spending for these programs and shift much more of the risk for health costs in the future to states and consumers.
If Republicans shy away from Medicare for the time being, for fear of angering senior voters, the fulcrum for this policy shift will be the debate about converting the Medicaid program to some form of a block grant, most likely one that would cap spending on a per- enrollee basis. This would be an enormous shift. Medicaid spending exceeds half a trillion dollars , and the program represents more than half of all federal funds spent by states. Medicaid has changed dramatically from its beginnings as a program largely for women and children on welfare. It now has more than 70 million beneficiaries, and its reach is so broad that almost two-thirds of Americans say that they, a family member or a friend have been covered by Medicaid at some point.