BENTONVILLE, Ark. – This summer, Arkansas became the first state to require poor people to prove they’re employed to receive Medicaid.
Critics say the state is trying to save money on the backs of the poor. That’s nonsense, Arkansas officials reply. They want to help the poor. Backed by the Trump administration, they are inspiring slackers and moochers to climb the economic ladder.
Thirteen other states are pursuing similar policies. They’d do well to pause their plans. For many low-income families, the Arkansas experiment has already proved disastrous. More than 12,000 have been purged from the state Medicaid rolls since September – and not necessarily because they’re actually failing to work the required 80 hours a month.
Consider Adrian McGonigal, who is challenging the policy in federal court.
McGonigal, like most non-disabled, nonelderly Medicaid recipients, had a job. Full time, too, at a chicken plant. The plant’s chemicals sometimes aggravated his COPD, a chronic lung disease, but his employer accommodated the condition by moving him from processing to shipping.
More important, McGonigal’s prescription medication – funded by the state’s Medicaid expansion, since his job didn’t come with health insurance – kept his symptoms in check.
McGonigal was unclear about what he needed to do to report his work hours, or if he had to report at all. The new policy applies only to Medicaid expansion enrollees, but even most people in that group don’t have to frequently check in with the state – because of age, disability, the state already has work information on file, etc. Like many I spoke with, McGonigal says he got confusing and sometimes conflicting information from the state’s Department of Human Services, which told him to report online. He doesn’t have a cellphone or computer, so he borrowed his sister-in-law’s smartphone.
“I thought that everything was good,” he told me in an interview for The Washington Post and “PBS NewsHour.” “I thought it was just a one-time deal that you reported it, and then that was it.”
It wasn’t. The state wanted him to report monthly. He learned this only when his pharmacy told him his insurance had been canceled. After that, he couldn’t afford his medication. His COPD flared up and he landed in the emergency room. And he missed lots of work. “I tried to stick it out, and still go to work, but I just couldn’t do it,” he said. Ultimately, reluctantly, his supervisor let him go.
In other words: A policy intended to help people get jobs instead cost McGonigal his.
There are other reasons programs such as Arkansas’ are unlikely to improve work outcomes.
The lives of low-income Americans can be precarious. They may change addresses and phone numbers often – which explains why other Arkansans I interviewed, including at a Little Rock homeless shelter, said they learned about the work reporting system only after their insurance was at risk.
The state made reporting online-only to avoid hiring more staff. Officials did this even though Arkansas has the lowest level of household Internet access in the country, and the online portal doesn’t work well on smartphones.
Most indefensibly, the website shuts down every single night between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. for “scheduled maintenance.” No wonder 80 percent of those required to report work hours or exemptions each month are reporting nothing at all.
I asked Cindy Gillespie, director of the state’s DHS, how confident she was that all – or even most – of the thousands of people kicked off Medicaid were not working and were insufficiently motivated to work. She said she’s confident anyone improperly removed from the rolls could easily get (it) reversed. McGonigal’s experience suggests otherwise.
Last month, his legal-aid lawyers persuaded DHS to grant him a “good cause” exemption and a chance to re-enroll in Medicaid. But because of additional red tape, he still hasn’t gotten any of his medication. It’s been six weeks.
Meanwhile, the chicken plant says he’s welcome back – when – and if – he’s healthy enough.