OHIO | More Medicaid funding needed to survive the recession, advocates say

By Susan Tebben

Ohio Capital Journal

After cuts to the state’s health care assistance program, Medicaid advocates are hoping a temporary federal funding increase will continue.

In May, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced cuts to many state agencies, but the biggest cuts hit Medicaid and education. The budget for Medicaid was chopped by $210 million.

Much of that original cut represented savings from a lack of service due to stay-at-home orders this spring. Whether those savings can continue remains to be seen as health care services reopen.

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The think tank Policy Matters, and other Medicaid advocates partnered with medical professionals on Tuesday to discuss reasons Ohio’s U.S. Senators should support funding for the program in a proposed federal stimulus bill, also known as the HEROES Act.

Participants in a virtual call said the state will need increased Medicaid funds to account for a recession that will last longer than the pandemic.

In March, President Donald Trump signed a law that provided a temporary 6.2% increase to the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP), the federal share of Medicaid expenditures in each state. The increase was effective Jan. 1 of this year, and is set to extend “through the last day of the calendar quarter in which the public health emergency declared by the Secretary of Health and Human Services for COVID-19…terminates,” according to a document from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The state saw a similar temporary funding increase during the 2008 recession, but Wendy Patton, senior project director for Policy Matters, said the help ended too soon. Following the recession, significant budget cuts were made because of the abrupt end to the funding.

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Because high unemployment is forecasted to last through most of 2021, Patton said the FMAP funding needs to be assured through the entire pandemic-induced recession.

The problem is that the pandemic recession has really only just started,” Patton said. “This is the kind of devastation we don’t want to see following the pandemic.”

Medical professionals say the Medicaid funding is needed not just to account for the effect of COVID-19 on health, but the impacts on mental health and even the opioid epidemic, which exists amid the pandemic and is exacerbated by it.

Pickaway County cardiologist and member of the progressive Physicians Action Network Dr. Greg Lam said there has been a rise in drug overdoses throughout the pandemic, and the stress of the public health crisis has caused a host of other issues for patients, including depression.

“We are in the medical and economic fight for our lives, and without increasing (FMAP funding) people will die, communities will suffer,” Lam said.

Children in particular are in need of the Medicaid safety net as school districts plan to bring them back to classrooms. Of the 2.6 million children living in Ohio, one in five were living in poverty before the pandemic, and with adults losing jobs and the health insurance that came with those jobs, health assistance will be a major part of keeping students safe, according to Kelly Vyzral, senior health policy associate for Children’s Defense Fund Ohio.

“Whatever (school reopening) ends up looking like, we want them all to have the appropriate immunizations and well-checks to protect everyone’s health,” Vyzral said.

Without the immunizations, Vyzral said the state could be setting themselves up for even more public health problems, such as measles outbreaks and other diseases currently controlled by vaccines.

The group plans to reach out to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Rob Portman and urge their support of an increase in the next proposed federal stimulus bill.

Brown’s office told the Ohio Capital Journal said the senator has advocated for another increase in FMAP of 14% in HEROES Act funding and continues to push for the funding.

“The last thing Ohioans should have to worry about during an economic downturn caused by a public health crisis is losing access to health care,” Brown said in a statement.

As of July 15, Portman has not returned the Ohio Capital Journal’s requests for comment.

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.

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