COVID-19 demands that Congress support Arizona’s Medicaid program

August 12, 2020 6:42 pm

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The COVID-19 pandemic has burdened an already strained health care system for months. For the most at-risk populations, including those with pre-existing conditions and Black and Latino communities, the virus has hit harder and the damage has been deeper. 

There is no road to recovery from this health and economic crisis that doesn’t include our state’s Medicaid system, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), which provides health coverage to over 2 million Arizonans.

That’s why there have been bipartisan calls from governors, hospitals, and health systems asking Congress to increase federal Medicaid funding as Congress did a decade ago during the Great Recession. While the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to invest more in Medicaid, the U.S. Senate’s response, the HEALS Act, fails to include any additional federal relief to state Medicaid programs.

This oversight could cost Arizona dearly.

Our state’s Medicaid enrollment has jumped by more than 125,000 members in the past few months and is projected to increase in overall enrollment by 16% in the next year. These cost pressures come on top of a massive state revenue shortfall. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee is projecting a $700 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year and an even larger shortfall the following year.

To make matters worse, children’s health coverage is uniquely at risk in our state. That’s because Arizona is the only state in the country that can freeze enrollment in its Children’s Health Insurance Program, known here as KidsCare. During the last recession, Arizona did just that and tens of thousands of children lost health coverage. It also froze AHCCCS coverage for low-income adults, rolled back life-saving medical treatments like organ transplants and slashed payments to health care providers.

Without enhanced federal support to our already taxed Medicaid agency, Arizona lawmakers will be looking for places to cut costs.

Cutting health care would be precisely the wrong thing to do. Medicaid is critical to addressing health disparities and reducing systemic inequalities. Latino children make up over half (53%) of positive pediatric COVID-19 cases in the nation. While Latino families have a higher rate of participation in the workforce, they are less likely to have access to affordable employer-sponsored insurance. 

AHCCCS, KidsCare, and the Affordable Care Act marketplace fill this gap by providing affordable health coverage to working Arizona families. Additionally, Medicaid expansion has extended coverage to significantly more people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people living with disabilities and low-income non-elderly adults, including many parents and caregivers of young children.

Statewide, children make up more than 40% of Medicaid participants. In many rural Arizona counties, more than half of children participate in Medicaid. Medicaid covers 100% of Arizona’s foster children and 58% of children with living with disabilities or special health care needs.

We can avoid a repeat of the past. But Congress must act now. Without additional relief from the federal government, Arizona lawmakers and our Medicaid agency will be forced to make cuts to care when we need it the most.

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Siman Qaasim
Siman Qaasim

Siman Qaasim, the President and CEO of Children's Action Alliance, is a veteran of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. She is a graduate of Howard University in Washington DC and holds an MBA at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.