Warnock: ‘fix’ to help expand Medicaid in Georgia and other holdout states

By: - June 29, 2021 8:06 pm

Sen. Raphael Warnock says he is still working on a plan that would create a federal Medicaid look-alike program that would extend coverage to people in states like Georgia that have not expanded the insurance program for the poor and disabled. Riley Bunch/GPB

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock says he is finalizing a proposal that would extend Medicaid coverage to more Georgians and bypass GOP state leaders who have rejected calls to expand the insurance program for the poor.

Warnock, who is in Georgia this week while the Senate is on break, said Tuesday he has urged the White House to include a “federal fix” in the next jobs package that would allow eligible residents in holdout states to gain health care coverage.

“I’m hoping to introduce legislation soon that will allow Georgians in the coverage gap and those who are low income to get coverage through the federal government while continuing to incentivize the state to finally expand its Medicaid program,” Warnock told reporters outside of Grady Memorial Hospital on Tuesday.

Gov. Brian Kemp is instead pursuing a plan that would slightly expand Medicaid, with about 50,000 people gaining coverage. But the Biden administration has paused the state proposal over concerns about requirements that participants satisfy 80 hours of work, school or other qualifying activity every month to gain and then keep their coverage.

The program was set to launch this Thursday but state officials notified the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services late last week that the program’s implementation date will be postponed until “at least” Aug. 1.

Frank Berry, who is the outgoing commissioner of the state Department of Community Health, acknowledged the ongoing review of the state’s waiver application in a letter to the federal agency and wrote that state officials “appreciate the continued discussions.”

State officials have so far rebuffed new federal incentives in the coronavirus relief package signed into law in March for the dozen states that have not fully expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The sweetened federal offer to expand could mean between $1.3 billion and $1.9 billion in funding for Georgia for two years, which could be a net gain of about $710 million to the state, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than 500,000 low-income Georgians could gain health insurance coverage, including individuals who make about $18,000 a year.

The governor’s office declined to comment on Warnock’s proposal for a federal work-around Tuesday.

Warnock made the case Tuesday that Republican state officials are wrongheaded about Medicaid expansion.

“They are complicating the situation by, first of all, digging in their heels for years, leaving us as one of only 12 states to refuse to expand Medicaid, and now trying to place on workers and people who are trying to find work the burden of work requirements in order to get health care,” Warnock said Tuesday.

“I happen to think that health care is a human right and that when we provide Medicaid expansion to working-class people, to poor people, we enable them to work and to find work,” he added. “And so they’ve got it upside down, and that’s why we keep having these fits and starts.”

Warnock has not outlined the specifics of his plan and hasn’t said when exactly the proposal will be made public. The senator penned a letter with Sen. Jon Ossoff last month to Senate leaders urging them to create a “federal Medicaid look-alike program” through CMS or pursue other strategies accomplishing the same goal.

“It’s definitely doable,” said Laura Colbert, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, a patient advocacy group. “The infrastructure of the federal government could be pretty easily adapted – in government terms – to this purpose.

“The conversations we’re hearing range a whole lot as far as what the federal fix to the coverage gap is,” she added.

For example, the federal marketplace could be tapped with no cost-sharing requirement, although the coverage might not offer as much as Medicaid. There is also a proposal that would allow cities and counties to pursue Medicaid expansion on their own.

Georgia’s senators have also urged the federal agency to “fully rescind” the state’s plan. The federal Department of Health and Human Services revoked Indiana and Arizona’s plans with work requirements just last week.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.