State health officials scramble after feds pause governor’s Medicaid plan

    Frank Berry, commissioner of the state Department of Community Health, said Tuesday that state officials are looking at "all options" after the Biden administration halted the state's health care proposal. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder (File photo from 2019)

    The head of the state agency that oversees Georgia’s Medicaid program told state lawmakers Tuesday that his agency is exploring all options after the federal government suddenly stalled the governor’s health care proposal.

    Frank Berry, commissioner of the Department of Community Health, said state officials are “strategizing on what our next steps will be.” The agency has 30 days to formally respond.

    “We believe that our waivers are written in a very, very sound manner,” Berry said. “We’ll continue to push as hard as we possibly can to ensure that we’re moving in the right direction as it relates to our waivers.”

    Berry’s comments were made during a discussion about next year’s budget, which includes about $68 million to implement a plan to extend coverage to about 50,000 low-income Georgians if they satisfy a work or activity requirement of 80 hours a month. The program is set to start up in July.

    Elizabeth Richter, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a letter to Berry on Friday that “allowing work and other community engagement requirements to take effect in Georgia would not promote the objectives of the Medicaid program.”

    Richter said the pandemic has made “community engagement infeasible” and that the federal agency “has serious concerns about testing policies that condition health care coverage on meeting work or other community engagement requirements.”

    The Trump administration approved the state’s waiver applications – including a second one that creates a reinsurance program – back in October. The federal agency’s website now shows the plan to slightly expand Medicaid as “pending.”

    The change in administrations has also thrown new fuel on the always smoldering debate over full Medicaid expansion in Georgia. The state’s GOP leaders have rejected expanding coverage under the Affordable Care Act for years, citing the long-term costs. Democrats argue that Kemp’s plan covers far fewer people at about the same cost.

    Now, the Biden administration hopes to give holdout states like Georgia more incentive to rethink their decision by offering to cover 95% of the cost, up from the current 90% federal share. In Georgia, about 400,000 people could gain coverage.

    “We’re reviewing all options,” Berry said Tuesday when asked about the potential incentive. “And it’s too early to determine what direction the state will go. The letter just came in afterhours Friday night, and we’re in the early, early, early discussions of ‘So what does this mean?’”

    He said the agency was “looking at all options.”

    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.