Critical Condition

NRO’s health-care blog.

Forget the ‘Cornhusker Kickback’: Senate Medicaid Deal a Recipe for Fraud


People were rightly upset when they learned about the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the deal whereby Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska sold his vote in favor of the Senate’s health bill in exchange for his state never having to pay for any of the Medicaid expansion in the bill.

However, the biggest problem with the Medicaid expansion in the Senate health bill is not the “Cornhusker Kickback,” but that it leverages an already flawed formula to determine federal payments to state Medicaid programs. The Senate bill would motivate states to invest more resources in recruiting higher income residents into Medicaid, rather than traditionally eligible beneficiaries, including the blind and disabled. The Senate bill also gives richer states a bigger Medicaid bailout than lower income ones. New Hampshire, Maryland, and Connecticut get the biggest handouts, while Mississippi, West Virginia, and Arkansas are short-changed, according to my just-published analysis.

The Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) is the federal financing formula that encourages each state to spend its own taxpayers’ money irresponsibly in order to maximize its take from other states. For example, California’s FMAP was traditionally the 50 percent minimum: For every dollar California spent, the U.S. Treasury would kick in one dollar. However, the FMAP is supposed to give more federal dollars to states with more poor people. So, Mississippi has had the highest FMAP, 75.67 percent: For every dollar Mississippi spent on Medicare, the U.S. Treasury would kick in $3.11.

The Senate bill proposes a much higher FMAP, averaging 90 percent nationwide, in 2019. However, the higher FMAP would only apply to the relatively higher-income, able-bodied, newly eligible beneficiaries. People eligible under the current law will still draw the previous FMAP. States with FMAPs of 50 percent would see them increased to 82.3 percent for the newly eligible beneficiaries. Imagine yourself a county public-health bureaucrat who would attract one federal dollar for every dollar spent on a blind or disabled Medicaid beneficiary, or $4.65 for every dollar spent on an able-bodied young man. Obviously, you would invest your energy in recruiting the able-bodied youth.

Furthermore, the expanded FMAP gives more federal fiscal leverage to rich states: Each thousand-dollar increase in money income per capita is associated with a 1 percent increase in the FMAP under the Senate bill, and this statistically significant regression explains over one-third of the variance in the change in FMAP.

For example, New Hampshire’s money income is $68,175 per capita, which is $16,942 greater than the national average of $51,233. Its FMAP would increase from 50 percent to 82.3 percent, an increase of 65 percent. This is 18 percent greater than it would have been if higher per capita incomes did not explain the Senate’s “generosity.” On the other hand, Mississippi’s FMAP increases by only 20 percent: From the current 74.73 percent to 95 percent. This increase is 15 percent less than it would have been if the state’s low income did not explain its poor outcome in the Senate’s FMAP allocation.

Instead of leveraging the FMAP, Medicaid reform should jettison it entirely, in favor of easily understood block grants.

John R. Graham is director of Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.


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