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Medicaid Is the ‘Levee’ Protecting Health Benefits

Some images are seared into our memories forever. The destructive winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina have torn away the mask that has long hidden many Americans who are left out and left behind in our society. None of us will soon forget the images from the Gulf Coast we thought we would never see in America — elderly, disabled and sick left to die, families split apart, citizens trapped in homes and makeshift shelters without food, water or basic sanitation — the despair of those devastated in this nation of great wealth.

But we also saw instances of hope reborn in the faces of family members reunited after the calamity. We saw great heroism, too, in the spectacular rescues by helicopter and the quiet courage of neighbors helping each other swim to safety.

Most of all, these indelible images remind us that we are all part of the American family. And when members of our family are in need, we all have a responsibility to do what we can to make our family whole again.

For tens of thousands of Americans displaced by Katrina — and for millions more across the nation — Medicaid is the levee that protects against a lifetime of ill health. On the Gulf Coast, it’s a lifeline for one in five residents of Louisiana and Mississippi. It heals the physical illnesses and injuries, and also provides the mental health care essential in enabling survivors to cope with the horrors and losses suffered.

Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and other public programs for the needy are now more essential than ever, not only on the Gulf Coast but throughout the nation. Every year under the Bush administration, more and more Americans have become uninsured. Almost 1 million more citizens lost their health insurance in the past year alone — a staggering rate of more than 2,000 a day. The number would have risen even higher without Medicaid, whose enrollment increased by 1.6 million last year.

Soaring health costs are a major part of the problem. According to a recent report by the Kaiser Foundation, the cost of health insurance rose 9 percent last year, far more than the 2.7 percent increase in inflation. The Bush administration has announced that Part B premiums under Medicare will increase 13 percent next year. Inevitably, these cost increases mean the number of Americans without health insurance will increase as well.

A large storm cloud hangs over Medicaid, however. Last spring, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress proposed reckless and destructive cuts in Medicaid totaling $10 billion over the next five years. Instead, we should clearly be expanding Medicaid to meet the needs of hurricane survivors and low-income fellow citizens across the country.

In fact, hurricane survivors deserve even greater help from Medicaid, with full federal payment for the costs of providing needed medical care to those affected by the storm. Income limits on eligibility should be waived, and so should residency requirements, so that no unfair barriers will impede access to essential health care. A similar approach was taken successfully after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and we should do no less after Katrina.

Republican leaders are cynical enough to realize that the public will be revolted by the spectacle of Congress enacting cuts in Medicaid at the very moment that thousands of our fellow citizens need help to heal the wounds caused by the hurricane and the flood. They delayed their effort to repeal the estate tax, and they will almost certainly delay any Medicaid cuts.

It makes no sense to allow the administration to wait until the television cameras have left the Gulf Coast and public attention has waned to then go forward with the same drastic cuts. Now is the time for Congress to make an unambiguous commitment, not simply by delaying the proposed cuts in Medicaid, but by canceling them altogether.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.