By | July 30, 2015

This blog was co-authored by Janine Hill, Executive Director, EverThrive, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (Ill.–09).

When President Johnson outlined his vision in the 1960s to achieve a Great Society, he mapped out a long “to do” list. Central to his mission to eliminate poverty, end racial disparities, and improve the quality of life of millions of Americans was the creation of the Medicaid and Medicare public health insurance programs. 

Yet, even as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Medicaid program this week, we are reminded of the constant need to protect it.  Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. continue to propose policies aimed at rolling back key elements of the Medicaid program. And in Illinois, Governor Bruce Rauner had to be ordered by a federal court last week to continue making Medicaid payments to health care providers so that children can receive the care they need during the state’s budget crisis.  

Medicaid has played a critical role for the past five decades in the health and economy of our state. After Medicaid was enacted in 1965, Illinois wisely accepted the federal government’s offer to help finance a public health insurance program for select groups of low-income individuals, including children, persons with disabilities and older adults. By enrolling in the Medicaid program, these individuals gained access to the comprehensive health services, like doctor’s visits and medications, they needed, but otherwise could not afford.

Today, the Illinois Medicaid program continues to operate as a joint venture with costs shared between our state and the federal government.  Illinois has designed our program to meet the health needs of our state’s most vulnerable residents. Low income pregnant women, children, and, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, adults without minor children, are also eligible for Medicaid coverage.  Of the three million Illinoisans currently enrolled in Medicaid, about half are children.  Furthermore, Medicaid provides critical health coverage to more than 15 percent of Illinois older adults and more than a quarter of individuals with disabilities living in our state.

There is no other healthcare program that serves so many Illinois residents throughout their lifetime, when they need it.  Similarly, no other health insurance program provides the same comprehensive—and in some cases—life-saving package of health benefits. Research indicates that the maternity and prenatal services available to eligible pregnant women and infants through Medicaid improve birth outcomes and lower infant mortality rates, offering our youngest residents a healthy start. Children enrolled in Medicaid have access to essential preventive and comprehensive health services, including vaccinations and dental benefits. Medicaid fills important gaps in insurance and Medicare coverage—like adult dental services—helps low-income seniors and people with disabilities with cost-sharing and, nationally, pays for one-quarter of all behavioral health services. Medicaid is the single largest payer of long-term care, providing critical home- and community-based services as well as nursing home coverage—helping seniors and people with disabilities get the care they need.

Medicaid benefits extend far beyond doctors’ visits and medication. Medicaid has been proven to reduce health disparities by providing a pathway to health care for scores of individuals who are at a disproportionate risk of being uninsured. A growing body of research shows that Medicaid has been a powerful factor in closing the achievement gap, as children who are covered by Medicaid are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and have increased future earnings as adults. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that, with these increased earnings, the government will recoup 56 cents of each dollar spent on childhood Medicaid.

As the major payer of health care in Illinois, Medicaid should, and does, attract the close attention of our top decision makers. However, cuts to Medicaid, the backbone of our health care safety net in Illinois, will reverse course on half a century of progress towards a better Illinois. We should reject cuts to Medicaid at the state or federal level. On the 50th anniversary of Medicaid, let’s renew our call to policy makers to enhance and improve, not undermine, Medicaid coverage for Illinoisans. It will not only strengthen millions of families in our state, it will also help build up our economy.

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