Guest column

Turning the page on covid-era mistakes

A lot of things were different three years ago, when covid panic was in full bloom.

The first step to fixing a mistake is to stop what you're doing wrong, and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is doing that with the process of Medicaid redetermination in Arkansas. She deserves a great deal of credit for fast-tracking this major change to help get the government--and the economy--back on track.

Before we can look forward, it's worth looking back.

We all remember the spring of 2020: Mask shaming, D.C. already spending hog wild, and schools closed across the country, doing irreparable damage to a generation of kids.

Today, most of us have come to our senses. But while masks, mandates, and forced swabs have nearly all gone away, the wasteful government spending has been the most stubborn to change--worst of all in the Medicaid program.

The biggest problem in Medicaid today has to do with something pretty straightforward: eligibility. Medicaid in Arkansas is intended for specific groups of people in the most need of the service, including those who are blind, disabled, pregnant, or in foster care.

All that changed in 2020, when the federal government decided that one of the most basic parts of the program was suspended indefinitely. What the government did, in effect, was legalize Medicaid fraud and extend free coverage to anyone who claimed it, regardless of whether they were eligible for the program.

A lot of changes have taken place in the past three years. People have gotten new jobs, married, had kids, but in the eyes of the federal government, none of that matters one bit when it comes to Medicaid eligibility.

That response makes even less sense today, three years past the emergency phase of the pandemic. But you and I are still footing the bill for all that "free" coverage, even for the ones who aren't eligible.

Fortunately, Governor Sanders is doing the right thing for Arkansas.

In December 2022, the federal government finally agreed to a change that allows states to take a look at their Medicaid rolls to make sure beneficiaries are eligible beginning April 1. That process, known as redetermination, is being given a year-long runway by the Biden administration. Clearly, they want states to slow-walk eligibility checks, likely for ideological reasons.

But Arkansas aims to finish redeterminations by June 30--one of the smartest, boldest, and most effective timelines of any state. Some other states won't even start looking by then.

Governor Sanders has chosen to be a national leader addressing a serious problem.

Thanks to the federal government forcing us to turn a blind eye to eligibility, enrollment has surged to more than a third of Arkansas' population.

Incredibly, by the state agency's own estimate, as many as 586,000 Arkansans on Medicaid today aren't eligible. That's more than half of the state's total Medicaid enrollees. The effect of that is felt most by the people who need the most help: eligible Medicaid recipients who are forced to wait for treatment or ration their care, because they're in line behind ineligible patients. This isn't compassionate--it is cruel, and ultimately unsustainable.

Nowhere else but in the world of government would this make any sense. If you don't buy a ticket to a football game, you aren't eligible to attend for free. If you don't have money to pay for the items in your cart at Walmart, they don't just give it to you. But today, three years after the pandemic, the government still is giving away coverage to people who make too much money to be on the program because they aren't eligible.

Survey results from The Center for Excellence in Polling, part of the Foundation for Government Accountability, found that 63 percent of Arkansas voters agree with Governor Sanders' plan to quickly remove people who do not qualify for Medicaid from the program. And a three-month countdown gives people time to find coverage from the same places the rest of us do--through our employers, through coverage on the health-care exchange, or any coverage they are eligible for in the marketplace.

In the meantime, as her administration puts it, Governor Sanders is helping people move "from government dependency to a lifetime of prosperity." It is also why she is seeking more flexibility in Medicaid work requirements. She knows, as all hardworking Arkansans do, that self-sufficiency is the key to a better life.

Some habits die hard, especially when it comes to government spending. I'm glad to live in Arkansas, where Governor Sanders is taking a bold stand against the mistakes of the past and moving us to a better future, where resources are protected for the truly needy, government excess is kept in check, work is encouraged, and taxpayer dollars are used wisely.

Josh Mesker, who lives in Benton, is the digital content and advertising strategist for the Foundation for Government Accountability.

Upcoming Events