Kentucky offers expanded Medicaid health coverage for adults

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday extended Medicaid coverage for dental, vision and hearing care to hundreds of thousands of Kentucky adults, saying the sweeping initiative will remove some of the health-related obstacles keeping people from getting jobs.

The expansion will cover about 900,000 adults enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program, the Democratic governor said at his weekly news conference. They will be eligible for the extended benefits starting Jan. 1, 2023, with no special enrollment period needed.

Beshear linked good health to workforce participation in announcing the initiative.

“If you can’t see, it’s really hard to work,” he said. “If you can’t hear the instructions that you’re getting, it’s really hard to work. If you have massive dental problems that are creating major pain or other complications, it’s really hard to work.”

Medicaid is a joint federal and state health care program for poor and disabled people. The federal government will pay for the “vast majority” of the expanded care, the governor said. The remainder of the costs can be absorbed by the state’s Medicaid budget, which is healthy, he said.

“It will have no significant impact on Kentucky’s budget,” the governor said. “It will require no changes to our budget in this next (legislative) session. In other words, it is easily affordable, which means we absolutely should do it.”

Federal funds will cover 90% of the initiative’s $36 million in annual costs, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services said in a follow-up statement Thursday. The state Department for Medicaid Services will cover the remaining 10%, the statement said.

The initiative applies to individuals earning less than $18,700 per year and a family of four with income under $38,200 yearly, Beshear said. Without Medicaid, they couldn’t afford health care, he said. People 21 and under already qualify for the dental, vision and hearing services if enrolled in Medicaid.

Beshear commonly refers to health care as a “basic human right,” but he stressed the initiative’s value in getting more people into the workforce. Lagging workforce participation coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn complaints from business leaders and Republican politicians.

“The goal here is to get folks to work, to ultimately get them off Medicaid,” the governor said.

This year, the Bluegrass State has set record low unemployment rates, holding at or below 3.9% since April. Kentucky also set records for business investments and job creation in 2021.

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, on Thursday called the Medicaid initiative a “remarkable step forward.” Expanding dental, hearing and vision coverage will have a “positive impact” on state’s workforce and the health of Kentuckians, he said.

“All of the data shows that when you work, you have a much better chance of having good health,” Chandler said. “You have to be able to have good health to work and you have to be able to work to have good health.”

On average, almost 100 million work hours are lost annually in the United States due to emergency dental care, Beshear’s office said in a news release. Meanwhile, about 16% of Kentuckians have some degree of hearing loss, the release said, citing U.S. Census data.

Beshear’s Medicaid initiative is an extension of action taken by his father, Steve Beshear, who championed the state’s Medicaid expansion when he was governor. More than 400,000 people were added to the Medicaid rolls when Steve Beshear expanded the program to cover able-bodied adults. For many Kentuckians, it was their first time to have health coverage.

Republican Matt Bevin, who succeeded Steve Beshear as governor, proposed a waiver that would have required some able-bodied Medicaid recipients to get a job, go to school or volunteer to keep their benefits. Bevin said the Medicaid expansion was too expensive.

The work requirements became tied up in court, but Andy Beshear rescinded Bevin’s waiver plan in his first few days as governor after narrowly defeating Bevin in 2019.

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