Dan Hemmert: Medicaid work requirements work. It’s time to bring them back.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this June 27, 2017, photo, people march during a protest against the Republican bill in the U.S. Senate to replace President Barack Obama's health care law, in Salt Lake City.

Recently, The Salt Lake Tribune published an opinion piece by contributor Paul Gibbs asserting that Medicaid work requirements are a waste of time and money. This well-meaning piece was terribly misguided, given solid evidence that work requirements do indeed help move individuals out of welfare to work and self-reliance.

Medicaid was originally conceived to provide health care for those truly in most need — low-income children and pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with disabilities. Its “express purpose” was to help those who truly could not help themselves, which Utah taxpayers have willingly funded even as costs have skyrocketed.

The radical expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare expanded the program exponentially beyond its original blueprint. In addition to those unable to help themselves, Medicaid now covers millions of able-bodied, childless adults fully capable of working — something never contemplated at Medicaid’s inception.

The result is that “traditional” Medicaid recipients have suffered. Ill-conceived federal payments schemes reward states with greater compensation for this new class of able-bodied adults, forcing tens of thousands of individuals in dire true need — traditional Medicaid recipients — onto waiting lists for the care they must have.

It makes perfect sense to require healthy adults who meet the appropriate age and health metrics to actively seek self-reliance. Mr. Gibbs characterizes “filling out and submitting a mind-numbing 48 job applications” over a 90-day period as an arduous slog; in reality, it amounts to perhaps an hour or two at a computer terminal to complete about four job applications per week. That is in exchange for free health care for healthy, able-to-work adults. Is it really too much to ask?

Mr. Gibbs also writes that “the majority of those in the expansion population who can work already do.” Fine. Then they already meet the requirement. He also points to recipients who need help to “get healthy,” failing to mention that the sick and disabled are also exempted.

Mr. Gibbs also decries the “burden” imposed by this most flexible of work requirements from “bureaucratic red tape” on — wait for it — bureaucrats. He also vastly exaggerates the findings of a Government Accountability Office study about state administrative costs and misses the point that helping people reintegrate into the dignity of work is an entirely appropriate use of taxpayer funds.

We are talking about a requirement that healthy, working age, nondisabled adults without dependent children make a “work effort” to become and/or stay employed in a state where our post-COVID-19 unemployment rate is among the nation’s lowest. Utah has jobs to fill and these particular Medicaid recipients seem like good candidates to fill them. How is that a “punishment?”

State administrators estimate that the work requirement applied to only about 30% of Medicaid beneficiaries. Utah’s work requirement granted plenty of exemptions for individuals, including traditional Medicaid beneficiaries, those already working part time and students. Exemptions also accommodated those left jobless because of the COVID-19 pandemic — a waiver of the work requirement was unnecessary.

Before a judge halted Arkansas' work requirement on technical grounds, more than 14,000 individuals had successfully left Medicaid because of increased incomes. More than 9,200 able-bodied adults found work, and taxpayers were on their way to saving $300 million per year.

The Arkansas decision did not invalidate work requirements, nor did it negate the reality that those requirements help families get back on their feet while conserving precious resources for the truly needy. Every dollar spent on able-bodied adults is a dollar diverted from other social programs, not to mention education, public safety and transportation. Such diversions also force traditional Medicaid recipients onto waiting lists for vital care.

The first goal of every Utah social assistance program must be to help lift all those who are capable out of poverty. Medicaid should refocus on delivering care for our state’s most vulnerable, while Medicaid work requirements continue helping able-bodied adults return to the dignity of work and self-reliance.

Dan Hemmert

Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, represents District 14 in the Utah Senate.

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