Op-Ed: Celebrating Medicaid at 50

By Kenny Colston
July 31, 2015

This piece originally ran in the Courier-Journal on July 28. It ran in the Richmond Register on July 31

If we’re being perfectly honest, few look forward to turning 50 years old and celebrating is the last thing they want to do.

But while many of us aren’t interested in celebrating 50 years of life, 50 years of a successful program is a real cause for a party. And that’s why I am excited about Medicaid’s 50th.

The health program covering low-income families, children, seniors and people with disabilities turns the BIG 5-0 on July 30, celebrating five decades of providing not only high quality, cost-efficient health coverage, but also economic security and peace of mind.

Why celebrate a government program turning 50 years old? Well to start, Medicaid plays a major role in providing affordable health coverage to people who wouldn’t otherwise have insurance. In fact, more than 947,000 Kentuckians receive care through Medicaid, and half of these people are children. Medicaid allows them to get the care they need without fear that expensive medical bills from an illness or injury will drive them to bankruptcy. It also helps nearly 99,000 seniors with health care, including in-home services or nursing home care. And it covers more than 230,000 people with disabilities, giving them access to care that makes it possible to live independently.

Secondly, Medicaid provides a really good bang for the buck. The program’s administrative costs are less than half of those of private insurers. Medicaid also spends less per patient and costs are growing at a slower rate than for private insurance.

Thirdly, Medicaid helps make families healthier. More than 44 percent of babies born every year in our Commonwealth are born to mothers who have received prenatal care through Medicaid, which is critical to the health of newborns. Those babies then qualify for care until their families’ financial situation improves enough to make them no longer eligible.

But Medicaid doesn’t just help these kids as newborns; it has lasting effects on their lives. Kids who receive Medicaid do better in school, miss fewer days because of illness, are more likely to graduate college and more likely to have higher earnings as an adult compared to children in similar situations who don’t receive this care. These benefits are too important to ignore.

Now, thanks to our state’s expansion of Medicaid, thousands more adults are getting the preventive care they need and we’re making progress towards improving Kentuckians’ health. In the first year alone, more than 80,000 people received preventive dental services that many of us take for granted.

Another 34,000 women were tested for cervical cancer and 26,000 were screened for breast cancer. These types of preventative care and early detection of health problems work: an important study has shown that states that have expanded Medicaid coverage for low-income adults in the past have seen a six percent decline in mortality as a result.

And finally, Medicaid helps the economy of our state. In addition to making the workforce stronger through better health, the program pumps billions of federal dollars into the state each year. This money provides jobs for nurses, doctors and other health care professionals. A recent independent study by Deloitte shows that Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion will create 40,000 jobs.

Considering all these reasons to celebrate Medicaid, our birthday present should be to protect the expansion of the program. Gov. Steve Beshear made the right call by expanding Medicaid by executive order, and now it’s time for lawmakers to put national politics aside and work together to improve the implementation of the program.

Medicaid has been a great present to Kentucky for 50 years. The best way to celebrate its birthday is to make sure we solidify its successes for 50 more years to come.