Rahm Emmanuel said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” And some on the left see the new Coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to advance Medicaid expansion in Wisconsin. 

Medicaid expansion would increase the income limits for accessing Medicaid to 138% of the federal poverty limit from where it currently stands in each non-expansion state. Currently, 37 states have chosen to expand Medicaid while 13 states remain holdouts–including Wisconsin. 

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) has said that the efforts to disrupt Medicaid expansion will lead to more Coronavirus deaths, while the former Director of Medicaid in Ohio has said the failure of states to expand Medicaid is putting lives at risk. Closer to home, state Senator Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) has said Wisconsin should expand Medicaid in response to the virus before it’s too late. 

Despite such dire claims, there is little reason to think that expansion would have a dramatic effect on the spread of the virus, particularly in Wisconsin which has unique circumstances when it comes to healthcare coverage. 

We may sound like a broken record on this point, but it is worth repeating:  Wisconsin does not have an insurance coverage gap. Despite the claims of those like Shilling that Medicaid expansion would lead to coverage for 82,000 more Wisconsinites, the reality is that those people already have access to heavily subsidized, low-cost private insurance in the state.  

Under Governor Scott Walker, Medicaid coverage was expanded up to 100% of the federal poverty limit. Those that fall above that income threshold but are still low-income will qualify for heavily subsidized private insurance–sometimes with premiums as low as a few dollars per month–on the Obamacare online exchanges. Indeed, Wisconsin is the only non-Medicaid expansion state that does not have a coverage gap. 

The reality is that private health insurers have been largely responsive to the needs of Americans to get tested and treated for the Coronavirus. Most major insurers have pledged to cover testing, increase coverage for telemedicine, and to include coverage for Coronavirus in all of their healthcare plans. Given the extremely low cost of private insurance for those from lower income groups, there is little reason to think that better options would be offered by throwing them into the government-run healthcare system under Medicaid.  

Governor Tony Evers made Medicaid expansion a central goal of his administration in his first budget, but Republicans in the legislature held firm to stop it. Given the rhetoric surrounding Coronavirus from expansion proponents, there is little doubt that it will be brought back again, likely during the next budget cycle. 

This is a serious time for both our state and country as we face the prospect of several months of social isolation and the loss of many of the amenities we have come to enjoy in modern society. Medicaid expansion in a time of crisis may sound good, as the prospect of providing more people with access to virus testing and treatment is hard to argue against. 

But the reality is not nearly so clear cut as those on the left would make people think.  Let’s not let panic over the Coronavirus lead Wisconsin down a policy path which we will come to regret in the future. 

Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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