Democrats’ bill would cover poor uninsured adults, up to a point
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
After giving up on their goal of creating a new Medicaid program to cover 2 million poor adults, Democrats are aiming to provide them with free private coverage as part of the party’s social policy bill. But there is a catch: The benefits would last only four years.
Even with that expiration date, the legislation cannot come fast enough for people such as Evelyn Davis, who suffered two heart attacks and has high blood pressure and diabetes. A former home health care aide, she lost coverage when she got divorced two years ago. She has chest pains and heart palpitations but said she cannot afford to see a cardiologist.
“If I can’t get any medicine, I just get Tylenol PM when I sleep,” said Davis, 63, “and just pray to God when I wake up that I won’t be in pain.”
She is among an estimated 2.2 million American adults who lack insurance because they live in one of the 12 states where Republicans have refused to expand Medicaid, which is jointly financed by the federal government and states, under the Affordable Care Act. Too poor to qualify for subsidized private insurance through the Obamacare exchanges yet not poor enough for Medicaid, they navigate a byzantine system of charity care — and often skip care altogether.
Now these patients may get what many have hoped for since the ACA’s passage more than a decade ago — albeit with no guarantee that the new benefits are here to stay. The framework announced last week by President Joe Biden for the $1.85 trillion social policy bill includes the biggest expansion of health care since the Barack Obama-era health law, patching holes in the landmark law that had long seemed impossible to fix.
Still, the framework is tenuous. On Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., dashed hopes for a quick Senate vote by refusing to endorse the measure, whose health care provisions had already been pared back under pressure from Manchin and other centrists to keep the price down.
The “public option,” promoted by Biden during his presidential campaign as a way for people to buy into a Medicare-like plan, was never even considered. Language authorizing the government to negotiate prices with drug companies was scrapped. A plan to give dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare recipients has been whittled down to just hearing.
In the end, negotiators dropped the idea of a new Medicaid plan financed entirely by the federal government for people in the 12 holdout states, which would have been complicated to create, in favor of fully subsidized private coverage — but only through 2025.
The free plans would be comparable to Medicaid coverage, with minimal fees for doctor visits and enhanced benefits such as transportation to medical appointments. All told, an estimated 4.4 million people — including the uninsured and other low-income adults — would be able to take advantage of them.
For Democrats, who took back the House in 2018 and this year gained control of the Senate in part by vowing to expand access to affordable heath care, the bill is a political necessity. And perhaps no Democrat needs it more than Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., the state’s first Black senator, who won a special election in January on a promise of expanding Medicaid.
Warnock will be on the ballot again in 2022, a year that is widely expected to be grim for his party, and the contest could determine control of the Senate. In Washington, closing the coverage gap remains Warnock’s signature issue.
“I believe that health care is a human right, and if you believe it’s a human right, you don’t believe it’s a human right for 38 states,” Warnock said in September.
But some Democrats, notably Manchin, view solving the problem solely with federal dollars as unfair to states that did expand Medicaid and continue to pay 10% of the cost; why, they ask, should Republicans be rewarded for resisting? Republicans oppose the social policy plan in its entirety, calling it a “tax and spending spree.”
The profile of those who fall in the gap is much the same as the profile of those hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic: poor people of color. Most are in the South; Texas alone accounts for more than one-third of people in the gap, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Della Young, 49, a kidney transplant patient with lupus, was doing fine when she lived in New York. As an end-stage renal disease patient, she is covered by Medicare, which paid 80% of her medical expenses. Medicaid picked up the rest.
But when Young moved to McDonough, Georgia, in 2015, she lost her Medicaid coverage and was unable to pay for drugs to prevent her body from rejecting her donated organ. Her transplant failed in 2016, and she has been waiting for a new kidney ever since, while undergoing dialysis three times a week. She sends the dialysis center a check for $5 a month — a small offering toward a much larger bill.
Because out-of-pocket expenses associated with transplants are so high, Emory Transplant Center, where Young is a patient, advised her to raise money on her own. She started a GoFundMe account, hoping to raise $100,000. She has raised $5,077 so far.
“This whole fundraising thing is crazy,” she said. “Health care should be the same across the board, regardless of what state you live in.”
Davis, the former home health care aide, pays $90 out of pocket to see a primary care doctor once a year and gets annual mammograms from the county health department, where they are free. Her children help, but she does not like to accept it.
The Democrats’ plan to fully subsidize four years of coverage would tide Davis over until she turns 65 in two years and becomes eligible for Medicare. She sought Social Security disability benefits, hoping to qualify for Medicare that way, but was unsuccessful.
“I filed for disability and they denied me,” she said, “and I’m like, ‘Oh, Lord, it ain’t so much about the check.’ If I could just get some insurance so I could see my doctors, that’s all I want.” She added: “If I could get four years, it would be great.”