AP Interview: Unemployment exemption gone from Medicaid bill
By DAVID EGGERT
LANSING — The sponsor of proposed Medicaid work requirements said Monday that lawmakers are removing a provision to exempt recipients who live in Michigan counties with high unemployment, saying it would have been too difficult to administer and denying allegations of racism.
Republican Sen. Mike Shirkey of Clarklake also told The Associated Press that the proposed 29-hour-a week workforce engagement requirement for able-bodied adults is being lowered to “very close” to 20 weeks. That is in line with the three states that have enacted Medicaid work laws and with Michigan’s work requirement for food assistance beneficiaries.
Since the GOP-led Senate passed the legislation a month ago, Shirkey has been working with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on changes in the GOP-controlled House. A new version of the bill could be drafted this week.
A provision that has attracted criticism would let recipients living in counties with 8.5 percent or higher unemployment meet the requirement by actively looking for work unless the jobless rate drops below 5 percent. Opponents have said it would help white residents in rural areas but disproportionately hurt beneficiaries in largely black cities such as Detroit and Flint, where the jobless rate is high but the countywide rate is low.
Shirkey said that is a “ridiculous notion on the surface” because a city resident could search for a job elsewhere in a county, and there are critics who “tend to view everything in the world through the filter of racism.” The provision is being pulled, he said in a phone interview, because the Snyder administration convinced him that “tracking the unemployment rate in all 83 counties on an ongoing basis every month would have become an administrative nightmare.”
Instead, the legislation likely will be revised to include a broader exemption giving beneficiaries a “grace period” window — maybe three months each year — to account for higher unemployment in their area and life events such as a family move or illness, Shirkey said.
He said the Michigan Chamber of Commerce initially proposed the exemption for recipients in counties with higher jobless numbers, which he thought was a “fair and reasonable thing to consider. But now the legislative process is actually working and we find that while it may have been a good idea, it’s not a good idea from the standpoint of complexity and ability to administer. So that’s the reason it’s being removed. It has nothing to do with these ridiculous claims.”
The bill would require an average of 29 hours a week of qualifying work activities to qualify for taxpayer-funded health insurance — employment, education, job training, vocational training, an internship or participation in substance abuse treatment. Those deemed noncompliant during a month would be issued a warning. If they did not become compliant within 30 days, they would be barred from Medicaid for a year.
Shirkey said the intent is not to punish a beneficiary who misses a reporting deadline by a day or two. But if an auditor determines that someone fraudulently claims to be working or seeking work, he or she will lose coverage for a year, he said.
Of the 2.5 million Michigan residents on Medicaid, roughly 1 million able-bodied, nonelderly adults would be affected by the legislation, including 700,000 who would be ineligible for exemptions from the requirements. Shirkey has said a vast majority of the 700,000 qualified through the Medicaid expansion, and half of them already work.
He said negotiators are working to ensure that extra costs to administer the workforce engagement requirements are kept low. Legislative fiscal agencies have estimated annual costs of between $15 million and $30 million. Shirkey said costs would total in the “low teens.”
He said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is “fully engaged,” and he hopes lawmakers pass the bill before breaking for the summer.
Advocates for the poor remain opposed to the legislation.
“No amendments or exemptions are going to make this bad bill a good bill. People will still lose health care,” said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver on Monday wrote a letter urging Snyder not to sign the measure, noting that her residents up to age 21 quality for Medicaid in the wake of the city’s water crisis. She said Medicaid is a “health program and not a jobs program.”