Matthew Holt

Matthew Holt
Matthew Holt is the founder and publisher of The Health Care Blog and still writes regularly for the site. He is also the co-founder of the Health 2.0 Conference, as well as a Founding Principal of the associated consulting firm Health 2.0 Advisors.

POLICY: Medicaid as the route to universal insurance?


During the Dolphin Group webinar I was presenting on today, I was asked if Medicaid would become a communal buying pool that would solve the unisurance problem. I rather fliply dismissed the idea, and Scott Tiazkun, healthcare analyst, IDC Research mentioned that something like that was going on in Massachusetts. Now there have been local changes in how many people Medicaid covers — for instance Tennessee put almost all its uninsured into Medicaid in the mid 1990s and more recently threw most out, and Utah changed the way it paid for Medicaid and enrolled more people — but we’re nowhere near the Clinton plan of putting all of Medicaid, all the uninsured and most small business employees in big buying pools. So I felt fairly safe saying what I said, but I also wasn’t exactly working from the latest data in my head. (Remember this was a webinar about health plan web strategies!)

To be honest I knew that Medicaid had picked up its enrollment relative to private payers in recent years — particularly in the recent recession, and as I really hadn’t looked much at this recently, I spent a bit of time today digging. What I did know is that the restrictions on Medicaid eligibility were greatly slackened at the end of the first Bush Administration and (from memory) the numbers on Medicaid went from the mid-20 millions in 1989 to nearer 35 million in the mid 1990s (with most of the rise during to the 1990-2 recession). Then under the SCHIP (health insurance for children) program in the mid-to late 1990s, another several million kids were put into Medicaid. Now some 5 million of that 35 million were dual eligibles (poor seniors on Medicaid and Medicare) and were double counted, but nevertheless the number of Medicaid recipients has gone up quite a bit. USA today reported last week (chart lifted from their site) that the number went from 34 million in 1999 to 47 million this year.

Us_mcaid The reason they gave in a companion article was that because welfare had essentially been abolished back in 1996, states no longer gave Medicaid only to AFDC recipients, but now have the freedom to base eligibility on income. And although eligibility has toughened up and rolls have been cut somewhat in most places during the most recent recession, in general states are getting more relaxed about eligibility requirements and some states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts are actually trying to add to their rolls.

I went to look at my estimates for the IFTF/RWJ 1997 Ten Year Forecast and I then estimated mostly just on population growth that by 2006 some 35m would be on Medicaid (which equates to 40-42m if you count in the dual eligibles). So things have progressed faster than I thought. The Center for Health System Change reported that despite a rise in the number of Americans getting employment based-insurance in the boom times, that number fell from 67% of the under-65 population in 2001 to 63% in 2003, and that most of that decline was replaced by people moving into Medicaid, although the number of uninsured did rise slightly too. Clearly at the margin Medicaid is replacing employer-based insurance. But have the numbers within Medicaid really gone up quite so much?

Using some data from 1993 that CMS has available, it looks as though some 5 million children got into Medicaid (or separate but equal SCHIP programs) between 1998 and 2003, and this seems equivalent to the data that HSC used in its study. Kaiser Family Foundation (which is a wealth of information about Medicaid) in a January 2005 fact sheet said that in 2003 Medicaid covered 25 million children, 14 million adults (primarily low-income working parents), 5 million seniors and 8 million persons with disabilities. That gets us to a total of 53 million, or 48 million not counting the seniors (who are dual eligible). CMS said in 2004 using FY 2001 data that 46 million people received Medicaid services. But CMS says in another data sheet that in 2004 there are 42 million enrollees and 52 million beneficiaries. A beneficiary is someone who receives a (payment for a) service from Medicaid. Now we are getting somewhere near the nub of the issue, in that people go in and out of Medicaid often on a monthly basis.

My assumption is that the "snapshot" is the 42 million, which seems much lower than the 47 million that USA Today reports citing CMS data that I cannot find on their web site. So I suspect (but please if you know I’m wrong email me) that the USA Today number is the 42 million plus some 5 million dual eligibles (although KFF says that the number of dual eligibles is now 7 million in this recent factsheet). So overall counting Medicaid enrollement is very hard to do, as you are counting several moving targets, and it’s a question of definition.

But what Scott said this morning was that Massachusetts was looking at Medicaid as becoming a way to provide universal health insurance.1121593676_3333jpg And judging by this article in the Boston Globe, that’s what Mitt Romney, (who is the guy who made me wait 2 hours to get into the Ski Jumping at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and incidentally) the Governor of Massachusetts, is saying he’s aiming for. Enrollement went from under 700,000 in 1997 to nearly 1,000,000 in 2002, back down to nearer 900,000 in 2003 and is now moving back up near to 1,000,000.

However, this is all a long way from saying that Medicaid is going to be the cure for uninsurance. There are two main reasons why.

First, most of the people going into Medicaid are effectively leaving employer-based insurance rather than moving from being uninsured to having Medicaid. Of course there may be people moving from being uninsured into Medicaid as featured in the USA Today story, but overall their places in the ranks of the uninsured (which is itself an extremely fluid population) are being taken by an equivalent amount of people losing employer-based insurance. So the overall number of uninsured is not being changed by this increase in Medicaid enrollment, other than the uninsured number would be much higher than the current 45 million (snapshot), had it not happened.

The second reason is the relative makeup of Medicaid and the uninsured. KFF also has a great fact sheet on the unisured.  Only 20% or 9 million of the 45 million uninsured are children, leaving 36 million adults, of whom 80% are in some type of work, or have a family member working. Medicaid now only covers 14 million adults. That means that Medicaid would have to double enrollment overall and nearly quadruple it amongst low-income adults to get rid of the uninsured, and given that half of those uninsured adults are over 35 and thus somewhat expensive, that would cost plenty.

This is just not going to happen in the current fiscal and political environment. So even though getting some of the working poor onto Medicaid is a good thing, it’s disingenous to say that Medicaid is going to be the solution to the uninsurance problem.

What we should so with the Medicaid population is move it en masse into some type of universal insurance pool, with the uninsured, and a bunch of other people.  But no one in Congress with any clout is going to be touching that with a ten-foot pole, and while Bush has noticed that health care is an issue, we all know this his "solutions" aren’t.