Reversing a three-year decline, the number of people covered by Medicaid nationwide rose markedly this spring as the impact of the recession caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 began to take hold.
Yet, the growth in participation in the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people was less than many analysts predicted. One possible factor tempering enrollment: People with concerns about catching the coronavirus avoided seeking care and figured they didn't need the coverage.
Program sign-ups are widely expected to accelerate through the summer, reflecting the higher number of unemployed. As people lose their jobs, many often are left without workplace coverage or the money to buy insurance on their own.
Medicaid enrollment was 72.3 million in April, up from 71.5 million in March and 71 million in February, according to the latest enrollment figures released last week by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The increase in March was the first enrollment uptick since March 2017.
About half of the people enrolled in Medicaid are children.
The increases varied widely around the country. Kentucky had the largest jump at nearly 7% from March to April. In addition, enrollment rose to 1.4 million in April from 1.2 million in February, according to the CMS data. That has continued, and today it's up to 1.5 million, state officials said in an interview.
Kentucky has an aggressive outreach strategy using email or phone calls to contact thousands of residents who applied for state unemployment insurance, designed to make sure they know about Medicaid. "It's been very effective, and in the past few weeks we've been enrolling 8,000 to 10,000 people a week," said Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees Medicaid.
The Bluegrass State has also made enrollment easier by developing a one-page online form instead of having people fill out a 20-page application, he added.
"This is the right thing to do to help people get signed up for health care coverage and it supports the health industry in our state," Friedlander said. "The health industry would collapse without Medicaid."
Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said she expects Medicaid enrollment to keep rising this summer. "Given that there are no signs that the virus is coming under control anytime soon, job losses will become more permanent, and more folks will become eligible for Medicaid over time," she said.
One reason Medicaid numbers have not grown faster, she suggested, is because people have more immediate needs than securing health coverage, especially if they are feeling well.
Many people are worried about getting unemployment insurance or getting evicted from their home, she noted. "That's combined with the fact that many people are reluctant to go to their doctor because of safety concerns," she said. "And, as a consequence, applying for Medicaid may not be at the top of their list."
Chris Pope, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, said the slower-than-expected growth in Medicaid could signal that people who were laid off had coverage through a spouse or a parent.
In addition, he said, "many jobs that went away did not offer health insurance," citing millions of service-sector positions in industries such as hotels and restaurants that have been lost.
Beyond the surge in unemployment, Medicaid rolls have risen because states cannot discontinue coverage to people enrolled as of March 18, 2020, as a condition of receiving higher federal Medicaid funding included in a coronavirus relief package passed by Congress.
Medicaid is a countercyclical program, meaning enrollment typically rises during an economic downturn. But that forces states to face the fiscal challenge of paying for their share of the program even as tax revenue dries up.
An exception to this rule was the jump in enrollment starting in 2014 when the Affordable Care Act allowed states to expand Medicaid to cover everyone with incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $17,609 for an individual this year.
Enrollment soared by about 15 million people from 2014 to 2017, peaking at about 75 million as nearly three dozen states expanded the program. Since then, a strong economy and steadily declining unemployment levels led to a drop in Medicaid rolls until April.
Enrollment changes in April varied across the country.
California, which has the highest Medicaid enrollment in the country, saw its level hold relatively steady at 11.6 million people in April.
Nevada and Oklahoma posted nearly 4% enrollment growth rates between March and April's data.
Florida's Medicaid numbers jumped to 3.7 million in April from 3.6 million in March, nearly a 2.5% increase, the CMS data showed. Since then, Florida data shows enrollment has topped 4.1 million.
The Trump administration has been criticized by consumer advocates for not establishing a national campaign to promote Medicaid during the economic downturn and health crisis.
One indicator that Medicaid enrollment is still going up is the growing number of recipients in managed care plans in 16 states that reported data from March to May. Those plans have increased by a total of nearly 4%, according to a KFF report. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.) Most states have shifted many of their Medicaid enrollees into these private health plans.
KFF estimated that nearly 13 million people who became uninsured after losing their jobs in March are eligible for Medicaid.
Robin Rudowitz, a KFF vice president, said there is typically a lag time of weeks or months before people who have lost their jobs and health coverage seek to enroll in Medicaid. The impact on Medicaid enrollment also lasts well after the immediate effect of a downturn, she said.
"There is a long tail," she said.