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NM Medicaid enrollment rising during pandemic

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s Medicaid enrollment has steadily increased over the past three months, another likely indication of the economic toll exacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

There were roughly 844,000 New Mexico adults and children enrolled in the joint state-federal health care program as of this week, up from 825,370 enrolled in February, according to the state Human Services Department.

Nicole Comeaux, the director of HSD’s Medical Assistance Division, said the enrollment figure – already at about 40% of the state’s population – is expected to continue rising, as some newly-eligible New Mexicans may be eschewing basic health care during the COVID-19 outbreak.

To absorb the increased cost, the agency has already been looking at internal budget savings and imposing copays or premiums on Medicaid recipients is not currently under consideration, she said.

“It will be our top priority to ensure that we have a balanced budget without impacting members and providers,” Comeaux said in a Tuesday interview. “That’s really not the direction the administration wants to go.”

She said $130 million received by the state under a federal relief package has helped cover the cost of the enrollment growth for now, but the state program could be facing a budget shortfall if additional funding is not approved in July.

In all, New Mexico state Medicaid spending is set to increase to nearly $1.1 billion for the budget year that starts in July, though the Legislature is expected to revise some expenditures in a special session that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she will call in mid-June.

Some states – including Colorado and Ohio – have already announced deep cuts to their Medicaid programs due to steep revenue declines caused by the coronavirus pandemic and steps taken to slow its spread.

Sireesha Manne, the executive director of the Albuquerque-based Center on Law and Poverty, said it’s incumbent on Congress and state lawmakers to protect Medicaid funding at a time when more than 70,000 New Mexicans have lost their jobs.

“Medicaid is especially vital as we face this health and economic crisis,” Manne said Tuesday.

She also cited past studies that have shown Medicaid cuts can result in significant job losses and decreased federal funding.

Although Medicaid is a federal program, states are given certain leeway in running it. The federal government currently pays nearly $4 for every $1 dollar that New Mexico spends on its program.

Before the recent growth, New Mexico’s Medicaid population had leveled off over the last several years, due in part to an improving state economy.

Along with increasing Medicaid enrollment, New Mexicans participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has also surged, according to the Human Services Department.

The number of New Mexicans enrolled in the program, formerly known as food stamps, went from 417,314 in February to 475,608 as of this week.

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