Medicaid — which has been a political football between Washington and state capitols during the past decade — scored big in Tuesday’s election.
Following the vote, nearly 500,000 uninsured adults in five states are poised to gain Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, advocates estimate. Three deep-red states passed ballot measures expanding their programs and two other states elected governors who have said they will accept expansion bills from their legislatures.
Supporters were so excited by the victories they said they will start planning for more voter referendums in 2020.
Medicaid proponents also were celebrating the Democrats’ takeover of the House, which would impede any Republican efforts to repeal the ACA and make major cuts to the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people.
"Tuesday was huge for the Medicaid program," said Katherine Howitt, associate director of policy at Community Catalyst, a Boston-based advocacy group. "The overall message is that the electorate does not see this as a Democrat or GOP issue but as an issue of basic fairness, access to care and pocketbook issue. Medicaid is working and is something Americans want to protect."
But health experts caution that GOP opposition won’t fade away.
David Jones, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Law, Policy and Management at Boston University, said ballot organizers now have a blueprint on how to expand Medicaid in states that have resisted. "I see this as a turning point in ACA politics," he said. Still, he added‚ "it’s not inevitable."
Medicaid is the largest government health program, insuring at least 73 million low-income Americans. Half of them are children. To date, 32 states and the District of Columbia have expanded it under the ACA. Before that law, Medicaid was generally limited to children, sometimes their parents, pregnant women and people with disabilities.
The ACA encouraged states to open the program to all Americans earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level ($16,753 for an individual in 2018). The federal government is paying the bulk of the cost: 94 percent this year, but gradually dropping to 90 percent in 2020. States pay the rest.
GOP opposition has left about 4.2 million low-income Americans without coverage in various states.
"It’s not over until it’s over is the story of Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act as the politics never ends and the opportunity for obstruction never ends," said Jones. "But the trend overall has been to increasing implementation and increasing coverage."
Montana fails to endorse funding
Two years after President Donald Trump carried Idaho, Nebraska and Utah by double-digit margins with a message that included repeal of the ACA, voters in those states approved the ballot referendums Tuesday. Together, the states have about 300,000 uninsured adults who would be eligible for the program.
In addition, Democrats secured the governor’s offices in Kansas and Maine, which will increase the likelihood those states pursue expansion. Legislatures in both states have previously voted to expand, only to have GOP governors block the bills. Maine voters also passed a referendum in 2017 endorsing expansion, but Republican Gov. Paul LePage again refused to accept it.
Current and incoming Republican governors in Utah and Idaho said they wouldn’t block implementation of the effort if voters approved it. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday he would follow the will of the voters but would not support paying for it with a tax increase.
It wasn’t a clean sweep, however, for Medicaid on Tuesday.
In preliminary results, a ballot issue to fund Montana’s Medicaid expansion — which is already in place and slated to expire next July — was failing. Tobacco companies had mounted a campaign to stop the measure, which would have partially financed the expansion with taxes on tobacco products.
The Montana legislature and the Democratic governor are expected to address the issue in the session that starts in January. No state has reversed its Medicaid expansion, even though GOP governors in Kansas and Arkansas have threatened to do so.
Nearly 100,000 Montana residents have received Medicaid since its expansion, twice as many as expected.
Nancy Ballance, the Republican chairwoman of the Montana House Appropriations Committee who opposed the bill that expanded Medicaid in 2015, said she is confident the state legislature will extend the program past July. But she expects the legislature to put some limits on the program, such as adding an asset test and work requirements.