Op-Ed

We owe it to citizens to strengthen Medicaid

In June we marked Medicaid’s golden anniversary. But what was created 50 years ago as a joint federal-state lifeline to provide health-care coverage for the nation’s most vulnerable Americans has now grown into the largest health insurance program in the world.

Medicaid is not the same program it was just a decade or two ago. All one has to do is look at the numbers to understand the scope of this important program. Medicaid covers more than 71 million Americans -- more than are on Medicare -- and up to 83 million, nearly one in every four Americans, may be covered at any one point in a given year.

Medicaid accounts for nearly half of our nation’s spending on long-term care services, and is the single-largest payer for mental health and substance abuse treatment. Its sister program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, pays for roughly half of all births in the nation each year.

Medicaid is a critical lifeline for Kentucky’s, and our nation’s, most vulnerable patients -- whether children, pregnant mothers, the elderly, the blind, or the disabled. As policymakers, we want to see a strong safety net program that protects those most in need by ensuring they have access to high quality care.

There are signs that the safety net is under strain. Too often, vulnerable patients can face problems accessing timely, quality care. The program would also greatly benefit from improved transparency, enhanced accountability and more robust program integrity.

But time is critical. Over the longer term, health economists and nonpartisan experts have warned the current paths of Medicaid and other entitlements are unsustainable. Future Congresses will have to take additional steps to modernize Medicaid, evolving this Great Society program to a more accountable, transparent and effective health coverage program to serve patients in the 21st century.

In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee has sole jurisdiction over the Medicaid program. And we not only have a duty, but a responsibility to strengthen and improve Medicaid for the tens of millions of people who rely on it.

Chairman Fred Upton recently appointed a Medicaid Task Force that I am proud to chair. The purpose of the task force is to help our colleagues better understand the evolving role Medicaid plays in our health care system, as we look for ways to strengthen and sustain this critical program. The road ahead will not be an easy one, but we have some of the brightest minds in policy and I am confident our work will yield beneficial results.

The task force will engage with states, providers, beneficiary groups, plans, researchers, and other stakeholders who have positive ideas and solutions to improve access and outcomes for Medicaid beneficiaries, while at the same time improving the program’s accountability and efficiency.

Members will help support the regular legislative work of our Health Subcommittee and full committee, providing an important opportunity for members to become leaders in Congress and broaden their expertise in the Medicaid program.

As we continue to celebrate 50 years of Medicaid, I am excited about the work of our task force, especially its goal to help people better understand the growing role Medicaid plays in our health care system. It is my hope that this task force will add energy and focus to important solutions to strengthen and ensure the longevity of this critical program for many decades to come. We owe it to the most vulnerable people in each of our districts.

U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green represents Kentucky’s 2nd District and is chair of a congressional task force on Medicaid.

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