As legislators consider more proposals to expand Medicaid eligibility or services to specific populations, they ought to consider that Medicaid is both like and unlike the universe.
Two bills moving through the Legislature this session are based on increasingly questionable assumptions about federal spending commitments. House Bill 282 would end the five-year waiting period for Medicaid eligibility for “lawfully residing” children and pregnant immigrants. House Bill 565 would extend Medicaid benefits for new mothers from two months after birth to a full year.
These expansions come as New Hampshire enjoys a temporary, pandemic-related increase in its Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP), which is the share of Medicaid spending the federal government covers. For the duration of the federally declared COVID-19 emergency, 56.2% of New Hampshire Medicaid spending is covered by the federal government. When the emergency declaration ends on May 11, New Hampshire’s FMAP rate reverts to its normal level of 50%.
(Incidentally, the additional 6.2 percentage points of additional federal funding during the pandemic emergency was given on the condition that the state not conduct eligibility determinations. That waiver of eligibility requirements will end when the emergency ends, which will affect an estimated 72,500 current enrollees. The pandemic enrollment increase has been so costly to the state that it has pumped additional federal funds into the Medicaid program.)
Legislators tend to assume that the default 50% rate will continue indefinitely. But the federal budget situation could prompt reductions in the federal contribution, something the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently suggested.
The CBO this month projected that the federal deficit will nearly double from $1.4 trillion to $2.7 trillion in the next decade, and the federal debt held by the public would reach a record 118% of Gross Domestic Product.
This record debt is driven by historically high federal spending, which is projected to increase from 23.7% of GDP to 24.9% of GDP by 2033. Federal spending has exceeded 24% of GDP only during World War II, the 2008 financial crisis, and the COVID pandemic. The CBO projects it to reach this level again within the next decade simply due to regular budget outlays.
Federal revenues, meanwhile, are projected to remain around 18% of GDP through 2033.
That unsustainable course will put pressure on Congress to cut costs or raise taxes or both. Anticipating this, the CBO in December offered suggestions for reducing the federal deficit. In the area of health care spending, the CBO suggested that Congress “establish caps on federal spending for Medicaid” and “reduce federal Medicaid matching rates.”
Such actions are not out of the question. As the Congressional Research Service puts it, “Medicaid was designed to provide coverage to groups with a wide range of health care needs that historically were excluded from the private health insurance market.” But the program has grown over the years to cover people who could find coverage in the private market.
By routinely expanding Medicaid benefits and eligibility, lawmakers have grown the program’s outlays from $206.2 billion at the turn of this century to $748 billion in federal fiscal year 2021. Medicaid accounts for 17% of U.S. health care expenditures.
These expansions are unsustainable for both the state and federal governments. Eventually, some level of financial discipline, however small or limited, will have to be imposed. Clawing back Medicaid spending is politically easier than touching Social Security or Medicare. That is especially true after Medicaid has grown to cover people who could find alternative insurance coverage. Given those realities, current levels of federal Medicaid spending cannot be taken for granted.
Any discussion of expanding Medicaid coverage or eligibility should start with the understanding that current spending levels are unsustainable, and increasing those levels just accelerates the date of reckoning.