Jul 18, 2019 - Health

Medicaid should be a bigger part of the "Medicare for All" debate

Illustration of a pills capsule opening with state-shaped pills falling out

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The fact that “Medicare for All” would eliminate Medicaid hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as its elimination of private insurance. But it’s a move that would largely eliminate states’ role in the health care system.

Why it matters: State Medicaid programs are leaders in experimenting with delivery and payment reforms, efforts to control drug costs, and addressing social causes of ill health, such as poverty and poor housing. All of those projects would still be important in a single-payer world.

How it works: Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill would move most Americans into its new single-payer system, including people with private insurance but also virtually all of the 73 million people covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Winners: States would reap huge savings. Medicaid is the single largest item in most state budgets.

  • The effects on safety-net hospitals and clinics would vary, depending largely on how payment rates under the new plan compare to today’s Medicaid rates.
  • The uninsured in states that have not expanded Medicaid also would be big winners.

Yes, but: The change would all but eliminate states’ role in health care, where they have been leaders not just in providing coverage, but also driving efficiency and testing new models of care.

  • Those reforms — and the idea of states as laboratories of reform — would pretty much disappear, and the balance of federalism in health would fundamentally change.

The bottom line: For advocates of a single national plan, eliminating the patchwork of state Medicaid programs would be progress. For fans of a federal-state balance, it’s a big problem.

  • Either way, Medicaid is a large and generally popular program, and its future at least deserves a bigger role in the debate.
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