Roy: “The Arkansas-Obamacare Medicaid Deal: Far Less Than It First Appeared”

At Forbes.com’s Apothecary blog, the Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy is cool to the idea of states implementing ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion by putting those new enrollees in ObamaCare’s health insurance “exchanges”: 

When Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D.) first announced that he had reached a deal with the Obama administration to use the Affordable Care Act’s private insurance exchanges to expand coverage to poor Arkansans, it seemed like an important, and potentially transformative, development. The myriad ways in which the traditional Medicaid program harms the poor have been well-documented, and it looked like Beebe had come up with an attractive—albeit expensive—way to provide the poor with higher-quality private insurance. A Good Friday memo from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, however, splashes cold water on that aspiration. It’s now clear that the Beebe-HHS deal applies a kind of private-sector window dressing on the dysfunctional Medicaid program, and it’s not obvious that the Arkansas legislature should go along.

The first reason states should not pursue the Beebe plan is that, like a straight Medicaid expansion, it would inhibit the pursuit of low-cost health care for the poor. 

The second reason is that it would cost even more than putting those new enrollees in the traditional Medicaid program. Economist Jagadeesh Gokhale, who advises the Social Security program on how to make these sorts of projections, estimates a straight Medicaid expansion would cost Florida, Illinois, and Texas about $20 billion in the first 10 years. And that’s in the wildly unrealistic event that the feds honor their committment to cover 90 percent of the cost. President Obama has already proposed abandoning that committment. Congressional Budget Office projections suggest the “Beebe plan” would increase the cost of the expansion by 50 percent. That too should be enough reason to reject the Beebe plan. Neither the state nor the federal government have the money to expand Medicaid at all. Volunteering to make the expansion even more expensive is lunacy. 

The Beebe administration is trying to make its plan seem no more expensive than a straight Medicaid expansion. How? By simply assuming state officials would voluntarily make a straight Medicaid expansion so expensive that the Beebe plan wouldn’t cost a penny extra. The illogic goes like this. If Arkansas were to expand traditional Medicaid, the state would likely need to increase Medicaid payments to doctors and hospitals in order to secure adequate access to care for new enrollees. That would make a straight Medicaid expansion so expensive that the Beebe plan would be no more costly, and might even cost less. 

It’s true, states that implement ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion would have to increase provider payments to give new eligibles decent access to care. The problem is that Medicaid never does that. Medicaid is notorious for paying providers so little that it access to care is lousy. Medicaid does so year after year, even if people sometimes die as a result. The Beebe administration simply assumed that state officials would magically change such behavior, increase Medicaid’s provider payments to the same levels private insurers pay, and thereby volunteer to make an already-expensive Medicaid expansion even more unaffordable. In that fantasy world, the Beebe plan would be no more expensive. As an indication of how implausible that assumption is, no one had been talking about combining a straight Medicaid expansion with higher provider payments until the Beebe administration needed to make the governor’s plan seem slightly less unaffordable. 

Roy has soured on Beebe-style plans since reading some of the terms and conditions the Obama administration issued on Friday. Yet he still imagines there might be free-market-friendly ways to implement a massive expansion of the entitlement state. Thus he counsels states only to expand Medicaid in exchange for real reforms. We’ve heard that song and dance before. Republicans said the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicare Part D – two Republican initiatives – would lead to Medicaid and Medicare reform. Instead, government got bigger and reform went nowhere. Lucy is going to pull the football here, too. If it is Medicaid reform you seek, the only free-market Medicaid reforms are Medicaid cuts. Roy’s criticisms of the Beebe plan are welcome, though it’s odd to find him to the left of officials in the 15 or more states that are flatly rejecting the expansion.