To Expand or Not to Expand: Medicaid Under the Affordable Care Act

By Jaime Whitt, University of Kansas School of Law-

Famed US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, in his dissent to the majority opinion in New State Ice Co v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 (1932), that “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” With these words Justice Brandeis generated one of the most prominent analogies of US Federalism—one that still holds true today: the States as the “laboratories of democracy.” This concept has seemingly come to life with the implementation of the ACA (P.L. 111-148) and its provisions. Though it is federal health care reform, there is considerable leeway for each State to individualize the legislation’s impact. From the choice between utilizing www.HealthCare.gov or creating its own state-based health insurance Exchange, to regulation of the health care Navigators and other ACA outreach programs, to whether or not to expand Medicaid and how, each State has several opportunities to either fully roll out the ACA and its initiatives or stifle the bill’s impact.

One of the mostly hotly debated issues of the ACA has been Medicaid Expansion. With 2012’s National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 132 S.Ct. 2566, the Supreme Court invalidated the federal Medicaid Expansion mandate as unlawfully coercive and left the Medicaid decision to the states. Since then, contentious arguments in favor of and against expansion abound. To exhaust the minutia surrounding this hotbed topic would arguably be fruitless in this context, but even a cursory review of the myriad issues involved reveals that the expansion decision is a complicated one.

To Expand

On the side in favor of Medicaid Expansion, the arguments typically stem from the vantage point of viewing expansion as a moral and fiscal imperative. States who choose to expand Medicaid get considerable financial support from the federal government in the form of 100% funding for the cost of newly enrolled Medicaid beneficiaries. In a December 2013 study of how states stand to gain or lose under Medicaid Expansion, the Commonwealth Fund found that expansion dollars would represent a major source of federal revenue to state enterprises—nearly 2.5 times the value of highly sought-after federal highway funds in some cases. These dollars are necessary, the argument often goes, to strengthen and protect state health care providers against uncompensated care and to expand health coverage and financial protection to a state’s neediest constituents. The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment (OHIE), which conducted a randomized clinical trial of the effects of expanded Medicaid coverage, found that expansion resulted in improvements in mental and physical well-being as well as protection from catastrophic medical expenses for those who previously had no such resources.

Not to Expand

On the other hand, many states have been leery that the federal government, whose ACA expansion funds match the states at 100% until 2019 when the rate levels out at 90%, will take back that funding, leaving state budgets strapped and on-the-hook to find a way to continue coverage. Recently, this argument has come under fire, as more states consider expansion and research into the history of federal Medicaid funding has revealed that once such funds become entrenched, they are rarely reversed. To that same point, however, many economic and health policy analysts have expressed concern that this massive expansion of public funds will further contribute to the already currently unsustainable growth of national health care expenditures. In support of this argument, results from the aforementioned Oregon study, as well as trends seen in Massachusetts after its 2006 health care reform, indicate that an (expensive) increase in ER utilization is a likely consequence of status-quo Medicaid expansion.

Conclusion

It seems clear, even after just a merely skin-deep examination of this issue and its many interrelated and dependent corollaries, that this debate may indeed be appropriate. Our federal government has the right and responsibility, many argue, to ensure health coverage and financial protection for its citizens to the extent that it can. Likewise, the States each have the right and responsibility to be concerned about their financial welfare when state budgets directly impact state citizens. This is US Federalism at its core.

And the debate is far from over. Certainly, the Republican routing in the November mid-term elections, given that party’s distaste for all things Obamacare, does not forecast a favorable future for the initiative. Having said that, it is no secret that Medicaid funds are generated by and distributed from general federal tax revenues. This means that even states that choose not to expand Medicaid are paying for it. How long will citizens in states that choose not to expand, such as Texas, be complacent with the denial of additional federal revenue, all the while knowing that their federal tax dollars are paying for benefits enjoyed by other states? Only time will tell.

Which brings me back to Justice Brandeis’ historic dissenting admonition. The States are the laboratories of democracy. No one would or could legitimately argue that either the Federal or State governments do not want to provide for and protect their citizens. The question comes down to who should do it and how. Overall, whether states choose new innovations designed to privatize and control Medicaid Expansion funds or choose to use increased funding to focus locally on educating beneficiaries on what resources are available and how to more efficiently use the system, choosing not to participate at all seems like a loser here. The States know their citizens and circumstances better than the Federal government and changes need to be made to the status-quo. The fallout is certainly not clear, but the “courageous” state that Brandeis highlighted will take the money and see what positive progress it can make.

Jaime Whitt is her fourth and final year of a joint-degree program at KU.  She will graduate in May 2015 with a Masters in Health Services Administration from the University of Kansas School of Medicine and a J.D. from the University of Kansas School of Law, with a focus in Healthcare and Health Law.  When she is not in school, Jaime is a Law Clerk at Simpson Logback Lynch Norris, P.A. in Overland Park, KS and is a Graduate Research Assistant in the Department of Health Policy & Management at the University of Kansas School of Medicine studying health policy and health reform.