Medicaid Enrollment Surges to New Record Amid Pandemic
Health Care

Medicaid Enrollment Surges to New Record Amid Pandemic

Karen Pulfer Focht

A record high of nearly 74 million people were enrolled in Medicaid at the beginning of 2021, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced Monday. Including minors enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers children in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, the total comes to more than 80 million.

Medicaid participation increased sharply as the coronavirus pandemic hit, CMS said, jumping by 9.7 million between February 2020, the month before a public health emergency was declared, and January 2021.

The agency said that a rule change adopted by Congress early in the crisis played a major role in the increase. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March 2020, gave states a temporary 6.2% increase in Medicaid funding to cover the expected surge in health care costs, on the condition that they not remove anyone from the rolls until the pandemic is over.

“The increase we are seeing is exactly how Medicaid works: the program steps in to support people and their families when times are tough,” CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in a statement. “For the parents that may have lost a job or had another life change during the pandemic, having access to coverage for themselves and their kids is life-changing.”

A change in focus: The increase reversed a trend of declining enrollment in Medicaid, which had been driven in part by the former Trump administration’s efforts to impose new restrictions on participation, The New York Times’s Sarah Kliff notes.

By contrast, says Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post, the Biden administration has focused on expanding federally funded health care, both through Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. The White House has said that it plans to keep the public health emergency in place at least until the end of the year, which experts will likely keep the enrollment numbers at or near record highs.

The Biden administration is also trying to entice the dozen states that have refused to expand their Medicaid programs as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, to change their minds. The American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021, includes more generous federal subsidies to cover the state portion of Medicaid costs. So far, though, there are few signs that officials in the non-expansion states are moving toward Medicaid expansion.