Expanding Health Coverage Smart Thing to Do in PA

Governor Tom Corbett is meeting with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today to discuss the opportunity to expand Medicaid health coverage in Pennsylvania. As we await news from that meeting, I wanted to share the following op-ed I co-authored with Raymond Castro of New Jersey Policy Perspective, making the case that Governor Corbett should follow the lead of New Jersey's governor and expand health coverage to hundreds of thousands of hardworking Pennsylvanians.

Last month, Governor Chris Christie announced that New Jersey would accept federal funds to extend Medicaid health coverage to more than 300,000 New Jerseyans because it was “the smart thing to do for our fiscal and public health.”

Across the Delaware, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has so far rejected the opportunity that his one-time role model has embraced. This decision could push Pennsylvania’s hospitals to the brink, hurt the state’s economy, and jeopardize the health of hundreds of thousands of hardworking families.

With nearly one-and-a-half times the population of New Jersey, Pennsylvania would see a much greater federal investment by extending Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That law allocates federal dollars to extend coverage starting in 2014, but states have to opt in. Federal funds cover all of the costs for the first three years and 90 cents on the dollar by 2020.

In Pennsylvania, 600,000 to 800,000 uninsured adults would qualify for health care coverage, more than twice as many as in New Jersey. Opting in would cut Pennsylvania’s uninsured rate in half and give its health care economy a needed shot in the arm. Working families would have the security of knowing that they can see a doctor when they get sick without being saddled with huge medical bills.

Governor Christie is not the only governor to recognize the value of this opportunity. So far, about half the states are planning to accept the federal funds and expand health coverage, with governors from both parties signing on in recent months. Nearly every state bordering Pennsylvania, including Ohio under fellow Republican Governor John Kasich, is opting in. Pennsylvania may very well become an island of the uninsured.

To put that in perspective, a fast food employee earning minimum wage in Media could find himself sitting side by side in the same doctor’s office with a Wal-Mart employee who lives just 20 miles away in the Garden State. Both earn about the same: one will have health coverage; one will not.

Both are working and one illness away from financial ruin. One will have access to the care necessary to keep her job; the other remains at risk of losing everything he has worked for. One will have coverage for prescriptions or physical therapy necessary to treat her conditions or recover from an injury; the other will be out of luck and likely out of work.

On the other hand, expanding health coverage in Pennsylvania will protect hospitals from large reductions in payments to treat uninsured people in emergency rooms. Governor Christie noted as much, saying the federal investment will “keep our hospitals financially healthy and actually save New Jersey taxpayers money.”

It also would give Pennsylvania’s health care sector a boost, especially the “eds and meds” that make up a large share of the economy in the Philadelphia region. By one estimate, the federal health care dollars would support more than 41,000 new jobs across Pennsylvania’s economy in 2016, more than twice as many as in New Jersey.

Pennsylvania state lawmakers are keeping their options open. The Senate Republican leadership has appointed Sen. Pat Vance of Cumberland County to examine the costs and benefits of expansion. GOP Sen. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County recently voiced support for Pennsylvania opting in.

In the House, Bucks County Republican Rep. Gene DiGirolamo has been a strong voice for the expansion, saying it will provide health coverage to employees of small businesses, save on emergency treatments, and improve health care for all citizens.

At the same time, there is pressure from special interest groups, including Americans for Prosperity, targeted at lawmakers who put the interests of their constituents above ideology.

Governor Corbett, to his credit, is meeting with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on April 2 to discuss the federal expansion of health coverage in Pennsylvania. This is a good first step.=||

During his gubernatorial campaign, Governor Corbett liked to say he need only “look across the Delaware River to New Jersey” for a good governing role model. This is one instance where he should follow Governor Christie’s lead and take this federal opportunity to provide hardworking families with the security of quality health care.

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