Four Obstacles in Selling the Benefits of Medicaid Expansion to States

Last week, the White House released a report outlining the economic benefits to states of expanding Medicaid. The report continues a line of argument the Obama administration has used in encouraging states to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the president’s health-care law.

The administration faces several obstacles in attempting to sell this argument to reluctant states.

The first is the argument I outlined yesterday—namely, the “poverty trap” exacerbated by several elements of Obamacare. In addition to concluding that the law as a whole will reduce the size of the labor force by the equivalent of approximately 2.3 million full-time workers in 2021, the Congressional Budget Office specifically has found that “expanded Medicaid eligibility under [the law] will, on balance, reduce incentives to work.” For instance, while individuals who exceed the threshold for Medicaid eligibility will likely become eligible for subsidized premiums on insurance exchanges, they would also become subject to thousands of dollars in premium payments and cost-sharing—all because of a potentially small increase in income. CBO has found that these kinds of “cliffs” discourage work.

Second, the Obama administration has rejected requests from states to impose work or job-search requirements in conjunction with the Medicaid expansion. While the administration has claimed to offer flexibility to states when it comes to altering the Medicaid benefit, it has steadfastly refused to consider any mandatory work or job-search requirement. Given the CBO’s analysis, the administration faces a rhetorical challenge in explaining how expansion can benefit the economy yet simultaneously reduce incentives to work—particularly as it declines to give states the ability through work requirements to mitigate against those disincentives.

Additionally, the White House report solely examines the benefits of increased federal funding to states without examining the source of that funding. Most notably, the health law included more than 18 tax increases, which according to the most recent CBO estimates will raise over $1 trillion in revenue—with obvious dampening effects on state economies.

Perhaps most importantly, various economists, including Harvard’s Katherine Baicker, have dismissed the notion that health care should serve as an economic engine. While the administration claims states that expand Medicaid will grow their economies, it has made no attempt to argue that expansion represents the most economically efficient use of those dollars—that the funds could not be better used building roads, returned to citizens, or even remain in the Treasury to reduce the federal deficit. In that sense, then, the administration might do well to heed one of its own former officials—Ezekiel Emanuel, former director of the Office of Management and Budget: “Health care is about keeping people healthy or fixing them up when they get sick. It is not a jobs program.”

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.