The latest manufactured crisis in Washington over raising the nation’s debt ceiling has been both tragic and farcical. In exchange for allowing the United States to continue paying its bills, Republicans in Congress have insisted on draconian cuts to federal spending. Yet rather than looking for savings in a military budget bigger than that of the next ten countries combined, or a tax code with loopholes worth billions to the uber-wealthy, the GOP has focused on what it sees as one of the real drivers of wasteful spending: health insurance for lazy people.
The “Limit, Save, Grow Act,” a conservative-wish-list-cum-ransom-note narrowly passed by the Republican House majority in late April, contained a provision that would impose work requirements on recipients of Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income Americans. Eligibility for coverage would be conditioned on either working, participating in job training, or performing community service for at least eighty hours per month, with a few exemptions based on age, disability, or having a dependent child.
The Biden administration predicts that up to 21 million people might lose their Medicaid coverage if the House Republicans’ plan were to become law. These could include people with chronic health problems who cannot pass a stringent test for disability; seasonal workers and those who work irregular hours; or others who are in fact eligible for coverage but fail for one reason or another to fill out all the right paperwork.
The administration is right: the Republican plan is both morally objectionable and economically self-defeating. Everyone deserves to have health insurance, regardless of their station in life, and people who cannot pay for medical care will be less productive workers too. But it takes real chutzpah to attack your opponents for trying to kick millions of people off Medicaid when your own policies are about to result in the very same outcome. The Biden administration is currently on track to preside over what will likely be the largest mass disenrollment of Medicaid recipients in the history of the program. What’s even worse is the fact that this disaster is entirely avoidable: it is happening only because of the president’s failure to fight for the continuation of measures implemented as part of the federal government’s response to COVID-19.
During the early phase of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, various federal agencies invoked authority under existing laws to issue emergency declarations empowering the government to respond to the crisis. President Trump declared a “national emergency,” while the secretary of Health and Human Services declared a “public health emergency” and also allowed the Food and Drug Administration to grant “emergency use authorization” to novel vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.