In Depressed Rural Kentucky, Worries Mount Over Medicaid Cutbacks – NPR

 In Health

Freida Lockaby says she has benefited from access to health care coverage through Medicaid.

Phil Galewitz/Kaiser Health News


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Phil Galewitz/Kaiser Health News

Freida Lockaby says she has benefited from access to health care coverage through Medicaid.

Phil Galewitz/Kaiser Health News

For Freida Lockaby, an unemployed 56-year-old woman who lives with her dog in an aging mobile home in Manchester, Ky., one of America’s poorest places, the Affordable Care Act was life altering.

The law allowed Kentucky to expand Medicaid in 2014 and made Lockaby – along with 440,000 other low-income state residents – newly eligible for free health care under the state-federal insurance program. Enrollment gave Lockaby her first insurance in 11 years.

“It’s been a godsend to me,” said the former Ohio school custodian who moved to Kentucky a decade ago.

Lockaby finally got treated for a thyroid disorder that had left her so exhausted she’d almost taken root in her living room chair. Cataract surgery let her see clearly again. A carpal tunnel operation on her left hand eased her pain and helped her sleep better. Daily medications brought her high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol level under control.

But Lockaby is worried her good fortune could soon end. Her future access to health care now hinges on a controversial proposal to revamp the program that her state’s Republican governor has submitted to the Obama administration.

Next year will likely bring more uncertainty when a Trump administration and a GOP-controlled Congress promise to consider Obamacare’s repeal, including a potential reduction in the associated Medicaid expansion in 31 states and the District of Columbia that has led to health coverage for an estimated 10 million people.


Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who was elected in 2015, has argued his state can’t afford Medicaid in its current form. Obamacare permitted states to use federal funds to broaden Medicaid eligibility to all adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, now $11,880 for individuals. Kentucky’s enrollment has doubled since late 2013 and today almost a third of its residents are in the program. The Medicaid expansion under Obamacare in Kentucky has led to one of the sharpest drops in any state’s uninsured rate, to 7.5 percent in 2015 from 20 percent two years earlier.

Kentucky’s achievement owed much to the success of its state-run exchange, Kynect, in promoting new coverage options under the health law. Kynect was launched under Bevin’s Democratic predecessor, Steve Beshear, and dismantled by Bevin this year.

Bevin has threatened to roll back the expansion if the Obama administration doesn’t allow him to make major changes, such as requiring Kentucky’s beneficiaries to pay monthly premiums of $1 to $37.50 and require nondisabled recipients to work or do community service for free dental and vision care.

Budget pressures are set to rise next year in the 31 states and the District of Columbia where Medicaid was expanded as the federal government reduces its share of those costs. States will pick up 5 percent next year and that will rise gradually to 10 percent by 2020. Under the health law, the federal government paid the full cost of the Medicaid expansion population for 2014-2016.

In a state as cash-strapped as Kentucky, the increased expenses ahead for Medicaid will be significant in Bevin’s view — $1.2 billion from 2017 to 2021, according to the waiver request he’s made to the Obama administration to change how Medicaid works in his state.

Trump’s unexpected victory may help Bevin’s chances of winning approval. Before the election, many analysts expected federal officials to reject the governor’s plan by the end of the year on the grounds that it would roll back gains in expected coverage.

A Trump administration could decide the matter differently, said Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voice for Health, an advocacy group that opposes most waiver changes because they could reduce access to care.

“I think it’s much more likely that a waiver could be approved under the Trump administration,” she said. “On the other hand, I wonder if the waiver will be a moot point under a Trump administration, assuming that major pieces of the [Affordable Care Act] are repealed.”

Lockaby is watching with alarm: “I am worried to death about it.”

Life already is hard in her part of Kentucky’s coal country, where once-dependable mining jobs are mostly gone.

In Clay County where Lockaby lives, 38 percent of the population live in poverty. A fifth of the residents are disabled. Life expectancy is eight years below the nation’s average.

Clay’s location places it inside an area familiar to public health specialists as the South’s diabetes and stroke belt. It’s also in the so-called “Coronary Valley” encompassing the 10-state Ohio/Mississippi valley region.

About 60 percent of Clay County’s 21,000 residents are covered by Medicaid, up from about a third before the expansion. The counties uninsured rate for nonelderly adults has fallen from 29 percent to 10 percent.

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