HHS Says Nebraska Will Meet Oct. 1 Medicaid Expansion Target

Jan. 29, 2020, 6:09 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services says the state is on track to expand Medicaid by October 1. The statement came Wednesday as a legislative committee considered a proposal to lock that date into law.

Sen. Anna Wishart is sponsoring the bill that would lock into law an October 1 start date for Medicaid expansion. That’s when an estimated 94,000 additional low-income Nebraskans will become eligible for health coverage as approved by voters in November, 2018. Wishart said other states have implemented expansion more quickly – in an average time of seven to nine months.

“Individuals eligible for Medicaid expansion have now been waiting for over a year for coverage since the initiative passed. And I want to ensure with this bill that what voters intended is carried out without any additional delay,” Wishart said.

Supporting the proposal, Kathy Ward, a volunteer for AARP Nebraska, referred to the contentious history of the expansion effort in the state.

“Back in November of 2018, voters heard both sides and they carefully weighed the facts and they made a clear decision to approve Medicaid expansion. They did so after six years of waiting for the Legislature to adopt Medicaid expansion and follow the lead of most of the other states. They expected and they had every right to expect that the state would listen to and enact this important program quickly. It's interesting that Idaho voters made the same decision at the same time and enrollment in their program began on November 1 of last year and coverage for the enrollees began on January 1 of this year,” Ward said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration has proposed two different levels of coverage for expanded Medicaid: a standard tier everyone will qualify for, and a premium tier, including dental and vision coverage, that someone will have to be working, studying, or caring for a relative to qualify for. It is currently waiting for federal approval of the two-tier system.

Kathy Nordby of the Health Care Association of Nebraska, which serves more than 100,000 low income patients across the state, said expansion has taken longer than it should, and state officials need to stick to the October 1 target date they announced last April.

“I think if you were to ask the average voter out there, whether they voted for it or against it, everybody believes it's already in place unless they're politically involved or suffer the consequences of this,” Nordby said.

Jeremy Brunssen of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services said the department’s still confident it can meet its own October 1 target date to start covering more people. Brunssen is incoming interim director of HHS’s Division of Medicaid and Long-Term Care.

“I'm just now stepping into the interim director role. And I haven't been in every meeting, I can tell you that the meetings I've been in with our staff and what I'm hearing from their conversations with our federal partners. And from the meetings I have been a part of, I feel like we're on a good path and I have no concerns about the October 1, 2020 date and the approvals that we're going to need from our federal partners,” Brunssen said.

Elsewhere in the Capitol, there was a pep rally held by supporters of a proposal to give tax breaks to people who contribute to a scholarship fund for low income people to attend nonpublic schools.

Along with recordings including “YMCA” by The Village People, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift, the crowd also heard from the Sacred Arts Home School Choir, which sang “We are not alone, we are not alone, we are not alone, God is with us.”

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, sponsor of the scholarship proposal, picked up on the theme of the song.

“That message that we're not alone, and there's always hope, is a reason we need to have school choice in Nebraska. I don't know how anybody can argue with it, but they do. But when I started this journey three years ago, I always felt very alone. I don't feel alone at all anymore,” Linehan said.

Linehan’s bill would limit eligibility for scholarships to students from families eligible for SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps. Those are available based on income – up to about $28,000 for a single mom with two children, for example.

Linehan said low and moderate income people already are eligible for SNAP, free and reduced price lunches, and the Children’s Health Insurance program, part of Medicaid.

“We provide lots of choices for people who are low to middle income, a lot of choices. The one choice that we don't provide in Nebraska for those families and those children is a choice to go to the school that best fits their needs,” she said.

“Interviewed later, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who opposes Linehan’s bill, gave her reasoning. “I believe that we are not a wealthy enough state to pay for the kids in the public schools and in the private schools. I want people to have the choice to go wherever they want. Choices are available. The public schools provide many choices as well. And I believe number one, it's not constitutional. And number two, I believe that we do not have enough money in the state, especially when everybody has the hue and cry about property taxes. We don't have enough money to pay for every choice of every child or every parent,” Pansing Brooks said.

Linehan is leading an effort to reduce property taxes that includes limiting public school spending. She sponsored a similar private school scholarship bill last year, but opponents kept it from passing. A hearing has not yet been scheduled on this year’s version.