Federal Assumption of Medicaid Costs

November 16, 2009

From the standpoint of Americans who prefer less government, one of the worst developments of the 20th century was the federal subsidization of state and local spending. The result has been bigger government at all levels. Medicaid represents the largest portion of federal money to the states. The states administer their own Medicaid programs, but the federal government picks up 50 to 83 percent of the tab depending on a state’s income. The estimated price tag of the federal share for fiscal year 2009 is $260 billion.

One result of the federal government paying for half or more is that it encourages the states to expand enrollment and benefits. It also makes it politically difficult to cut state Medicaid spending because of the accompanying loss of federal dollars.
A 2007 analysis on the exorbitant future costs of Medicaid by Jagadeesh Gokhale illustrates how the program’s price tag has skyrocketed since its creation in 1965 (see chart here). Over the decades, the states expanded their programs whenever the economy was growing and the tax revenues were flowing. When the economy went into recession and the revenue dried up, the states generally didn’t scale-back benefits and sometimes they asked for bailouts from the federal government. The 2009 stimulus package provided an estimated $87 billion in federal Medicaid money for the states. 
If the economy remains stagnant over the next few years and state tax revenues fail to rebound, further pressure will mount on the federal government to continue bailing out state Medicaid programs. The nightmare scenario would be for the federal government to assume the full costs of Medicaid under state pressure.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget director, Michael Genest, recently raised the idea
Genest, who is retiring at the end of the year, warned that California’s budget problems will persist even after the state works its way through this recession. He singled out Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid health-care program for the poor, as unaffordable for the state. If the program’s costs continue to climb 8 percent a year, the state will have little money left for anything other than schools and debt service by 2040, he said. 
The health-care reform proposals now before Congress could further strain state budgets because they would expand Medicaid, Genest said. 
Genest said Congress should overhaul Medicaid, now funded jointly by state and federal governments but run by the states. The federal government should cover more of the costs, give states more flexibility or even make a drastic switch and let federal officials take over Medicaid completely, he said. 
“If you want to imagine a crisis, as a thought experiment, imagine all 50 states writing a letter to the federal government saying, ‘We’re no longer providing Medicaid.’ That would get Congress’ attention. And that’s about the only real leverage we have,” Genest said. 
Current health care legislation in Congress threatens to increase state Medicaid spending. In the House passed bill, the federal government would pick up 100 percent of Medicaid’s expansion until 2015 when it would drop to 91 percent. However, the future is unpredictable and it’s not hard to imagine a future Congress keeping it at 100 percent federal funding. 
According to the Congressional Research Service, the House bill also contains a provision that could be intended to create a justification for greater federal assumption of state Medicaid spending: 
H.R. 3962 would require GAO to study federal matching payments made to state Medicaid programs to make recommendations on the FMAP formula to Congress. By February 15, 2011, GAO would be required to submit a report based on this study assessing the effect on the federal government, states, providers, and beneficiaries of making the following changes to the FMAP formula: (1) removing the 50% floor or 83% ceiling, or both and (2) revising the current FMAP formula to better reflect state fiscal capacity, state efforts to finance health and long-term care services, and to better adjust for national or regional economic downturns. 
See this essay on the need for a return to fiscal federalism.
*Update: The Washington Post reports this morning that the House health care reform bill contains an additional $23.5 billion Medicaid bailout for the states. The provision would extend by an additional six months (through 2011) the stimulus legislation’s “temporary” increase in the federal government’s share of total Medicaid spending.



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