November Offers Major Test of Medicaid Expansion's Support in Red States
Several states will hold the first referendum on Obamacare since Congressional Republicans tried and failed to repeal it.
- Four states are voting on Medicaid expansion in November -- Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and Utah.
- Medicaid expansion is a central tenet of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. It makes people living up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line eligible for Medicaid, the government-run health insurance program for the poor.
- Only one state, Maine, has approved Medicaid expansion through the ballot box.
- It is the first time voters will directly weigh in on provisions of the ACA since Congressional Republicans tried to repeal it.
It started with Maine. After years of failed attempts to get Gov. Paul LePage to sign off on Medicaid expansion, residents took to the ballot box and made it the first state where voters passed the health care policy.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing. Maine's Republican governor has taken every opportunity to block the expansion -- even asking the federal government to reject the state's Medicaid expansion application that the courts made him send.
But the passage alone galvanized health care advocates who wish to see Medicaid expansion in the 14 states that have declined federal money to offer health insurance to the people who fall in a "coverage gap," where they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance.
In November, four states are voting on the issue -- Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and Utah. The ballot measures will test support for a central tenet of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA) in red states, which make up the bulk of the 14 holdouts. It will be the first referendum on provisions of the ACA since Congressional Republicans tried and failed to repeal it last year.
Supporters of Medicaid expansion see it as a vital part of the social safety net, especially because qualifying for Medicaid in nonexpansion states can be tough. Opponents, however, see expansion as fiscally irresponsible since states will start picking up 10 percent of the costs in 2020.
While the price tag of Medicaid expansion can come with some sticker shock, independent analyses have found that states often save money by insuring people -- there are fewer instances of uncompensated care, and people are healthier when they have insurance. According to a 2016 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 11 states experienced some savings from Medicaid expansion.
In Idaho and Nebraska, there has been no major movement on Medicaid expansion from either the executive or legislative branches for years. Because of Idaho’s historic opposition to Medicaid expansion, and the fact that the ballot measure doesn't mention how it would be funded, advocates could experience a bit of déjà vu there.
While the federal government initially pays 100 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion, it eventually hands states a bill for 10 percent. The funding issue is what LePage has been using as a reason to refuse to implement Medicaid expansion in Maine. For his part, Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the Republican expected to succeed Gov. Butch Otter in November, is against Medicaid expansion but has said he would accept it if it passes.
"Proponents insist that it’ll pay for itself, but entitlement programs are historically costlier than anticipated. I imagine there are going to be some really tough discussions if it passes," says Fred Birnbaum, vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which opposes the measure.
Nebraska's measure also doesn’t have a provision that explicitly says how the state share would be paid for, but supporters don't believe that should make a difference.
"We modeled our language based on the Maine initiative, so it’s clear and unequivocal," says Democratic state Sen. Adam Morfeld, who introduced Medicaid expansion bills in the past. "The governor can say he won’t implement it, but we’ll have a court tell him otherwise."
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is expected to win reelection in November, has opposed Medicaid expansion since the beginning but said that if it made the ballot, it’s up to the voters to decide.
"That’s honestly the best I could hope for," says Morfeld.
In Montana and Utah, the questions before voters are a little more complicated.
Montana expanded Medicaid in 2015, but under the deal struck in the state legislature, it is set to expire June 30. Residents will be voting on whether to extend it, and how the state would fund their portion of it. The ballot measure proposes hiking taxes on tobacco products to $2 per pack.
Utah also already passed a bill to expand Medicaid, but it is awaiting federal approval. It would require nondisabled people to work, volunteer or participate in a job training program; the expansion would automatically end if the federal match dipped below 90 percent; and eligibility stops at the poverty line, which is $12,140 for a single person. (The federal government has rejected other states' requests to limit expansion to people at the poverty line.)
The ballot measure, meanwhile, asks voters to expand Medicaid traditionally -- without work requirements or eligibility limits past the federal poverty line. It also asks voters to increase the sales tax to fund the state's share. It’s unclear what would happen if the ballot measure passes and the federal government approves Utah’s competing Medicaid waiver.
Only Utah has conducted polling on the issue, which was done in June. The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 54 percent of voters support the measure, 35 percent oppose it, and the rest are undecided.
"There’s been a lot of discussion in Utah about this, we’ve been having this debate for a couple of years now," says Danny Harris, associate state director of advocacy at AARP Utah, which is in favor of the ballot measure. "The polling has always been consistently in favor. People are ready for this issue to move forward."
For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.