GOP Looks at Medicaid and Food Stamps for Overhaul
Policy + Politics

GOP Looks at Medicaid and Food Stamps for Overhaul

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Senate Republicans are preparing to reprise their long-standing efforts to achieve major savings in Medicaid and federal food stamps by turning the programs over to the states in the form of block grants. 

Under that approach, the federal government would pay the states a lump sum instead of a portion of the programs cost. The states would then have more control over setting standards for the programs and would assume more of the overall cost. 

Related: $74 Billion Food Stamp Program in Budget Crosshairs 

The Wall Street Journal first reported on Thursday that Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi of Wyoming and other Republican leaders will include the plan in their fiscal 2016 budget proposal that will be unveiled sometime next week. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Budget Committee, told The Journal that the plan offers more flexibility on the ground.   

The proposals for overhauling two of the premier social safety-net programs are certain to touch off another major fight between the GOP and the Democrats over domestic spending policies as the 2016 presidential campaign begins to heat up. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the new ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, vowed yesterday to do “everything in my power to make sure we pass a budget that does not harm the most vulnerable Americans.” 

Related: The High Cost of Young PhDs on Food Stamps 

Although the food stamp caseloads dropped 11 percent last year as the economy continued to improve, some GOP lawmakers see the potential for further cuts to the $74 billion program, which has increased more than 45 percent since President Obama took office.

The committee’s new chair, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), said, “We have seen the overall unemployment rate fall, yet the number of long-term unemployed remains high.” Senate Republicans agree with this assessment, and hope to embed an overhaul of the vital nutrition program in the upcoming budget document.

House Republicans sought to convert the food stamp program to a block grant for the states as part of last year’s budget process, but failed to make any headway with the Democrats still in charge of the Senate and President Obama and advocates for the poor opposed to such a change.

If that proposal had been implemented, it was projected to save $125 billion between 2019 and 2029, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is not clear whether the Senate Republicans will embrace a similar reduction target – and whether they would try to impose it over the coming decade or in a shorter period of time.

Related: IRS Workers Cheat Government in Food Stamp Fraud

Either way, such a change “would be huge and would irrevocably alter the program moving forward,”   Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said today in an interview.  “One in seven Americans and one in four children use this program. To cap and cut its funding structure would permanently alter the face of the safety net, and it would cause enormous damage.”

Last year’s House Budget Committee blue print also estimated savings totaling $732 billion over the coming decade if the Medicaid program were converted to a block grant. Medicaid is a state-federal health program that covers nearly 70 million poor and disabled Americans and is a frequent target of conservative lawmakers.

The Medicaid block grant proposal drafted by then-Budget Committee Chair  Paul Ryan (R-WI) and approved by the House in March 2013, would have cut federal Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program funding by 31 percent by 2023, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s because the funding would no longer keep pace with health care costs or with expected Medicaid enrollment growth as the population ages. Those cuts would have come on top of the Republicans’ efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.

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