With COVID-19 cases on the rise and key provisions of the CARES Act expiring at the end of July, the prospect of losing unemployment benefits, facing eviction, being unable to put food on the table, and having to return to school or work in an unsafe environment is looming for many Kentuckians.
Any progress Kentucky has made in keeping our residents safe and healthy could be undone without the sustained federal aid we need to ensure our safety net is truly up to the task of ushering our commonwealth through this crisis.
Nearly three months after House Democrats passed the HEROES Act, Senate Republicans countered with their own relief package called the HEALS Act. With a focus on liability protections for businesses and reduced unemployment benefits, the HEALS Act doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of Kentucky families or addressing our unprecedented health and fiscal crisis.
The HEALS Act ignores the hard numbers, as well as the many stories of people struggling to get by. One in four Kentuckians are behind on rent, and 16 percent of adults living with children in Kentucky say they couldn’t afford to give their kids enough to eat. An astounding 188,000 Kentuckians have lost their jobs.
Since March, over 180,000 Kentuckians have enrolled in Medicaid. This number highlights the dire need for health care coverage in the midst of an economic downturn and public health crisis. Medicaid was designed for times such as these, and is a lifeline for Black and Brown Kentuckians, people with disabilities, underpaid workers, and others who are getting sick and dying in greater numbers during COVID-19 due to systemic racism and inequitable access to care.
This is why Medicaid is critically important right now. During this pandemic, losing a job doesn’t have to mean losing health care. With Medicaid, families can get the care they need without risking crippling medical debt, making it easier to go back to work and keep contributing to our economy.
But Medicaid is also at risk. Balanced budget requirements and recession-driven revenue shortfalls mean Kentucky may soon face pressure to cut Medicaid and other critical safety net programs. That would cut families’ health and economic lifeline, just as need grows.
Congress must do more. A glaring omission in the HEALS Act is the absence of an enhanced federal match for our Medicaid program. To avoid harmful cuts and protect coverage during the public health and economic crises, Congress must substantially increase the share of Medicaid costs paid by the federal government (the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP) – as the bipartisan National Governors Association has urged.
Medicaid has a history of helping people in times of crisis, allowing states to respond to unpredictable events like the health and economic toll of COVID-19. During the Great Recession of 2008, Medicaid played a vital role in helping communities get back on their feet and helping states close budget gaps, save jobs and reduce the uninsured rate. While the HEROES Act increases the federal match to 89 cents on the dollar to save Kentucky an estimated $1.5 billion in state budget costs over 18 months, the HEALS Act has no such provision.
When Kentucky legislators convene for the General Assembly in January, they will face the challenge of creating a budget to address the needs of the state. Without more federal aid, we face budget cuts of 16 – 29 percent this year alone. Local governments will also face shortfalls, which translates to job losses for essential public works and further cuts to schools, Medicaid, and other critical services.
Instead of cutting programs like Medicaid, we should turn to them in times of crisis. By increasing federal support for Medicaid, we can provide more equitable access to testing, treatment and follow-up care, shore up our state budget, and strengthen the resources of our safety-net providers to meet the growing demand for care. If Congress doesn’t act soon, the pressure on our budget could result in cuts to Medicaid at a time when Kentuckians most need it to get through this crisis healthy and whole.
This pandemic reminds us we all benefit when our friends, families, neighbors, and coworkers are healthy. Every Kentuckian deserves access to affordable health care and workplace policies that don’t force us to choose between paying the bills and spreading a communicable disease. We all deserve to live in a state that doesn’t present a false choice between our well-being and our economy. A robust safety net can help us stay healthy and safe and create the right conditions to support economic recovery.
Kentuckians are struggling, and the HEALS Act doesn’t do enough to help. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must put Kentuckians first and immediately negotiate a bipartisan agreement to provide substantial aid to state and local governments and real relief that will see our commonwealth through this disaster and help us thrive on the other side.