Dunkelberg: A 'Texas Solution' for the Affordable Care Act

Because the governor is hesitant to expand Medicaid, the legislature will probably adjourn without taking full advantage of the dollars available to Texas to cover the uninsured through the Affordable Care Act. Fortunately there is more than one way to skin a cat, which in this case means a way to pull down all the dollars in the affordable care act through a market solution rather than by expanding traditional Medicaid, and it can be done before the legislature meets again in 2015.

Here’s how it would work. The Affordable Care Act divides the uninsured into three groups: 1) those who can afford health insurance; 2) those who can afford private health insurance with sliding-scale premium assistance; and 3) those who can’t afford health insurance. The act assumes that a state will enroll those who can’t afford health insurance in traditional Medicaid (drawing the line on affordability at those with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty level), but it doesn’t have to work that way.

The federal government negotiated an alternative plan with Arkansas that allows that state to take the federal dollars it would have gotten from enrolling its eligible citizens in traditional Medicaid and instead use those dollars to buy them private health insurance coverage. state Rep. John Zerwas, a medical doctor from Houston, proposed legislation to create a similar “Texas Solution.” While his proposal was approved in committee, it was not scheduled for a vote by the House, even though a majority apparently favored the idea.

Going forward, though, nothing stands in the way of our state leaders from striking their own deal with the federal government. Texas law provides all the authority our leaders need. Making a deal would be good for Texas.

More than a million Texas citizens could gain coverage, including more than 800,000 working Texans. This number includes young adults, but it also includes older adults who will not qualify for Medicare for years. And it includes more than 66,000 uninsured Texas veterans and their spouses.

This brings me to a problem you may not have heard about. Last summer, when the United States Supreme Court held the Affordable Care Act constitutional, it threw a wrench into the way the act works by also ruling that the federal government could not impose a penalty on states that chose not to expand Medicaid.

But act’s sliding-scale premium assistance is only available above the poverty line. If a state like Texas doesn’t already cover adults up to the poverty line and doesn’t expand Medicaid, then the state creates a terribly unfair coverage gap. Starting in 2014, those living from 100 to 138 percent of poverty can get sliding-scale premium assistance, while those living below 100 percent of poverty who don’t already qualify for Medicaid get nothing.

In Texas, if you are an adult, chances are you don’t already qualify for Medicaid. Texas Medicaid basically covers only low-income children, seniors, people with disabilities, and pregnant women. Only adults raising children and making less than $4,000 a year (for a family of three) qualify for Medicaid. Working age adults without children do not qualify at all.

This coverage gap creates a big problem for employers. If Texas chooses not to cover everyone up to 138 percent of poverty, Texas employers will pay higher taxes in 2014 because the Affordable Care Act taxes employers who don’t provide health benefits if their employees make between 100 and 138 percent of poverty and sign up for premium subsidies. The Jackson-Hewitt Tax Services estimates Texas businesses will pay $299 to $448 million each year in extra tax penalties for these workers if our leaders don’t provide a Texas Solution.

Finding a Texas Solution to fully implementing the Affordable Care Act would not only help employers, it would bring a projected $6 billion a year in federal funds to Texas communities, build the health care work force and reduce the need for local property taxes to fund indigent care.

Experts project it would also create up to 300,000 jobs, which is why 20 Texas chambers of commerce, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, and the Texas Association of Business all supported a Texas Solution.

Fortunately, we can afford to develop a Texas Solution at little to no additional cost by shifting current costs to the federal tab and bringing in new revenues from increased business activity.

For the sake of Texas, our leaders need to make a deal with the federal government to fully implement the ACA through a Texas Solution that provides Texas citizens the health insurance they need.

Written by Anne Dunkelberg, Center for Public Policy Priorities. Cross-posted from Better Texas blog.