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Talking With Harold Pollack on Medicaid and Obamacare

July 08, 2012|Stephen Markley

Here’s basically what happened: I was at a 4th of July party well on my way to having a great time, when I somehow found myself in an argument about Medicaid and the Medicaid expansion in health care reform with a few young doctors who I felt had totally eye-popping worldviews about access to health care for the poor.

At some point in this argument this hypothetical was proposed to me: “What do you do for a living? A writer? How would you like it if the government told you you had to write some specific thing. That’s what doctors have to do. They have to treat poor people in emergency rooms no matter what.”

And at that point I lost every ounce of cool I possess because this person seemed to be arguing, as a medical professional, that he would like to allow people who cannot pay for their medical care to be sick and/or die. I guess if that’s your position, I have no rebuttal. But if you’re, you know, not a psychopath you probably acknowledge that societies need ways to provide medical care for disadvantaged people—especially the elderly and disabled who cannot work and have no way to provide care for themselves.

Therefore, all the arguments about why Medicaid sucks—that it doesn’t pay doctors enough, that patients are frequently non-compliant and make poor health decisions—are all arguments for improving the program, not abandoning it.

Anyway, this is all my extended way of saying that in light of this drunken argument, and, more importantly, the Supreme Court’s take on the Medicaid expansion in the Obamacare decision, I wanted to write a big, long blog post on the topic. Instead, I got in touch with Harold Pollack, a Professor of Social Service Administration at the Center for Health Administration Studies at the University of Chicago.

Pollack has been one of the Affordable Care Act’s most passionate and eloquent advocates and has what I would describe as “occasionally uncanny” insights into the myriad ways our health care system functions (or fails to). He’s written all kinds of stuff about health care reform, but if you have to choose one, I’d go with this piece in the Washington Monthly where he games out what may happen to health reform in a Romney presidency (wow, I think I totally just outed myself as a Harold Pollack groupie). Here following is our conversation:

Markley: We’ve heard a lot about the individual mandate, but speak for a moment about the consequences of the Medicaid portion of the decision.

Pollack: The Court upheld the basic constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. I personally believe this was an easy case that should never have gotten this far. This case did a lot of damage in just delaying the execution of health care reform. As for Medicaid, there are some serious consequences to the way the Supreme Court has limited the power of the federal government. It said the government can use carrots but not sticks, but if many states choose not to expand [Medicaid], this creates all sorts of mischief and leaves millions of people uncovered.

This is not about Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney. It’s about millions of people who are uninsured. We’ve got to get this right because it will make an enormous difference in people’s lives… I am optimistic that once the dust settles every state will take the money. This is money being offered with a 94% federal match. What people don’t seem to understand is that many of the people affected are already getting services from the public sector—from hospitals and social services agencies. Every nursing home desperately wants this expansion. The great irony is that these big red states like Texas and Florida that have huge uninsured populations—We are begging them to take free money to take care of their own citizens. But these Governors are so dug in politically and they have such a toxic attitude about health care.

If you look at the enormous fight to create Medicaid in states of the old Confederacy, within six or seven years they were all in. They desperately needed this money, and when it happened it went surprisingly smoothly.

I got into a heated exchange with a few young doctors about health care reform, and this is a phenomenon I feel like I don’t understand—the right-wing MD who’s advocating to let people be sick or die. Is the low reimbursement rate for Medicaid the entire reason?

Well, people get a lot of messages that aren’t accurate. I do think the reimbursement rate is a problem, but the ACA raises the rates for primary care providers for a while. It’s specialists that are really tough.

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