Obamacare's Secret Medicaid Success: People Are Learning That They're Eligible For The First Time

Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Friday, the House approved a bill that marks Obamacare's latest compromise: Americans who would lose their existing health insurance coverage will be allowed to keep their plans for another year, even if those plans don’t conform to the healthcare law’s requirements. Yes, Obamacare continues to sputter and trip over itself, and some have speculated that the botched rollout could cause significant damage not only to President Obama but to the Democratic Party’s entire worldview. Libertarians and some conservatives argue that the government simply shouldn’t tackle big things like health insurance, and the incompetent implementation of the Affordable Care Act is, in the eyes of some, evidence of that. 

But all that being said, the law has nevertheless helped bolster the argument for big government in one big, albeit indirect, way: It seems that the midst of all of the negative coverage of the health care law, a lot of people have learned for the first time that they qualify for Medicaid, and are signing up in droves.

Take Washington state, where 70,000 people have enrolled in Medicaid since Obamacare’s open enrollment. According to figures released by the state, 30,000 of those people previously qualified for Medicaid — they just didn’t know it until the Obamacare exchanges opened up (or, perhaps, until negative media coverage of Obamacare got them thinking more about about health care in general). 

In total, 400,000 Americans discovered last month that they’re eligible for Medicaid after attempting to sign up through the exchanges, although the federal government didn't say how many of these people were previously eligible. 

The effect is particularly pronounced in the 25 Republican-led states that rejected Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. The governors of those states had the opportunity to receive free federal money to expand health care coverage to poor people, but rejected it because, hey, it’s poor people. Nevertheless, 90,000 people in those states who were already eligible for Medicaid learned of their eligibility first time during Obamacare’s open enrollment in October, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. This includes 11,600 people in Texas, 13,000 in Florida, and 11,000 in Wisconsin.

It’s often the case that people who are eligible for government programs like Medicaid don’t realize it. In 2002, only 32 percent of Medicaid-eligible people in Texas had actually enrolled in the program. In Massachusetts, where a former governor whose name escapes me once enacted an Obamacare-esque program, 80 of eligible recipients end up enrolling, and the national “take-up” rate for Medicaid is 56 percent.

Obamacare certainly has its share of problems, one big one being that if not enough young people sign up for coverage, premiums have the potential to skyrocket. But the rising take-up rate for eligible Medicaid recipients will help mitigate this, and besides that, it’s a good thing in and of itself.

It’s funny, and sad, to realize that the only thing keeping many Americans from receiving affordable health insurance is often simply a lack of awareness that it’s out there.

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