Medicaid could face crucial tests in 2018 at both the federal and state levels.
Republicans in Congress failed in their attempts earlier this year to impose drastic cuts to the program as part of ObamaCare repeal, but GOP lawmakers could try again next year.
The tax bill that President Trump recently signed into law is projected to add $1 trillion to the federal deficit, making cuts to Medicaid an even more tempting target for some conservatives.
“Medicaid is front and center in any budget exercises, and now that deficits have increased, it puts Medicaid squarely in the bull’s-eye,” said Joan Alker, the executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he wants to bring down entitlement spending, saying in December that “health-care entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid are the big drivers of debt.”
Any entitlement cuts from Ryan will likely face pushback from members of his own party, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell has said he doesn’t expect to see entitlement reform on the agenda next year ahead of the midterms.
“The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result,” McConnell told reporters in late December.
Medicaid covers nearly 75 million people, and the program has proven resilient in the face of conservative opposition.
Cindy Mann, a consultant at Manatt Health who ran Medicaid under former President Obama, said attacks on Medicaid have made it more popular.
“Medicaid has always been supported by the people closest to it,” Mann said.
Some Republican senators have recognized the political risks of Medicaid cuts, too. The GOP’s ObamaCare repeal push failed in part because of senators opposed to the Medicaid cuts.
“The Medicaid program is starting to get a politically powerful status,” said Eliot Fishman, the senior director of health policy at Families USA, an advocacy group.
Fishman noted that Maine, Arizona and Alaska are all Medicaid expansion states represented by Republican senators who have shown a willingness to protect the expansion funding.
Over 16 million people have enrolled in Medicaid since states began expanding coverage under ObamaCare. The program could continue to grow in the near future, as more states could seek to take advantage of the additional federal money offered by the health law.
Future Medicaid expansions could be especially likely if a Democratic wave in November’s midterms gives Democrats control in more statehouses.
In Virginia, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) has promised to expand Medicaid, something Democrats in the state have been unable to accomplish in the last four years in the face of a GOP-controlled legislature. But with a 50-50 split in the House or even a 51-49 Democratic minority, depending on the results of a recount, Northam has much better odds than current Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
In Maine, voters approved a ballot initiative allowing the state to expand Medicaid. Gov. Paul LePage (R) has refused to implement it, but a new governor replacing LePage after he leaves office in the face of term limits could be more willing to accept the results.
If even a few more states choose to expand Medicaid, “it starts to get to be enough critical mass nationwide that I would hope it just makes it a permanent part of the Medicaid program,” Fishman said.
But advocates worry that unprecedented flexibilities offered by the Trump administration will allow states to completely change the nature of Medicaid.
Administration officials have said they will allow governors to add work requirements, time limits and lockout periods for people who can’t pay their premiums on time.
Advocates say adding such provisions would further the Republican case that Medicaid is a welfare program, instead of health insurance.
“Whether you support them or not, those activities are not the function of a Medicaid program,” Mann said. “People can differ as to the efficacy of those efforts, but few people can accurately say that’s what health insurance ought to be doing.”
In the coming months, the Trump administration could approve waivers allowing states like Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana and Kentucky to impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries.
Arizona also wants to impose a five-year limit on Medicaid eligibility for the “able-bodied.”
States that want work requirements have acknowledged that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people would lose Medicaid coverage under the proposals.
Prior to ObamaCare, Medicaid mainly covered children, the disabled and pregnant women. The law’s optional expansion allowed many more low-income people to become eligible, leading to criticisms from conservatives that “able-bodied” beneficiaries were essentially freeloading off the government.
Alker said that’s the wrong way to look at it.
“[Medicaid is] predominantly run by managed care insurance companies, so that kind of rhetoric is a gross oversimplification,” Alker said. “But people who want to cut it, they tend to focus on one population.”