Op-Ed

Admit it, Medicaid maze just a way to hassle low-wage workers

Jacalyn Carfagno
Jacalyn Carfagno

The summer before I started college, I cleaned rooms at the Holiday Inn in the county seat about 15 miles from my family home.

I learned a lot that summer.

There was the motel manager who liked to come and sit with the maids as we ate lunch, mooching food from these hard-working, poorly compensated women. Occasionally he made stupid jokes, including the one about how the Kotex disposal bags could be used for popcorn, too. Long before #MeToo, we just rolled our eyes and wished he’d let us eat in peace.

There was the maintenance guy, a classic curmudgeon, who dealt with complaints about hot rooms (this was Arkansas in the summer) by adjusting the thermostats so they’d display lower temperatures — “people will think they’re cooler.”

But the reason I’m writing isn’t to share memories of my introduction to incompetent and inconsiderate male behavior in the workplace.

Instead, this came to mind as I thought about Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to create a maze of rules that poor working people covered by Medicaid must navigate to maintain access to health care.

Make no mistake about it, although he presents the changes to Medicaid as tough love that will push able-bodied people who aren’t working back into the realm of self-affirming employment, in reality it will simply be another burden on people like my former co-workers.

The state will save money not by guiding people to economic independence but by confounding them with a muddle of requirements. Bevin’s plan anticipates that many won’t be up to sorting through the red tape and so will fall off the Medicaid rolls.

For example, under the changes, Medicaid recipients might be required to take financial literacy classes and notify Medicaid anytime their income changes. Regardless, they want every Medicaid recipient to report in monthly, apparently to re-justify their worthiness for basic health coverage.

Sitting in your office with a guaranteed annual salary, that might not seem so oppressive. But hard, physical work like cleaning motel rooms, or waiting tables or any of the other low-paying jobs that Medicaid recipients perform, makes you tired — physically and mentally. That summer I was mentally alive on the drive to work, thinking about what I was reading, cogitating on world problems, etc., etc. But on the way home, it was all I could do to stay on the road and find my exit. Much less take notes at a financial literacy class.

And income changes? It wasn’t uncommon for me to show up and be told I was only needed for the morning, so I’d wind up with a 30-mile round trip and just three or four hours of minimum-wage earnings to show for it. I’m sure my help wouldn’t have been needed in the fall when vacation season was over.

Think about it: How many of Kentucky’s low-wage workers — in restaurants, hotels, bars, retail shops — are slammed during busy seasons but hardly needed the next week? What happens when a snowstorm hits and everything closes, a racing meet ends or thousands of students at the University of Kentucky leave for the summer?

Kentucky, under Bevin, now wants Medicaid recipients to report to the state every month about their wages (and to pay premiums — I’m not even going there). Back in the day, my coworkers and I had stable housing so, perhaps, if we had the physical and mental energy and (these days) access to a computer and the internet, we might have been able to report every month.

But what about the tens of thousands of low-wage Kentuckians who move frequently? How convenient will it be for them to keep their records and documents in order and report monthly? What if a child gets sick or a car breaks down to further complicate things? Can any of us say we’ve never missed a payment or a deadline?

But in Bevin world, those things aren’t supposed to happen, I guess. Or if they do and you miss reporting to Big Brother Medicaid bureaucrats, you could be shut out of health-insurance coverage for six months or more.

Low-wage workers put up with a lot for very little. It’s a crime that Bevin wants to make them put up with even more.

Editorial writer Jacalyn Carfagno can also be reached at 231-1652.

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