Costly And Callous: Medicaid Recipients Deserve Better Than Scott Walker

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The dust has barely settled after multiple failed attempts by Congressional Republicans to eviscerate Medicaid by repealing the Affordable Care Act -- but it hasn’t stopped their colleagues’ efforts to stigmatize the poor and reduce their access to care. Enter failed presidential candidate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Though Walker refused millions of dollars in federal funding for Medicaid expansions under the Affordable Care Act, he’s now set to ask the Trump administration to approve a waiver which would make his state the first in the nation to force Medicaid applicants undergo a mandatory drug test in order to qualify for benefits. Walker wants to set up a system where childless, able-bodied adults would be questioned about illegal drugs -- and “suspicious” responses would require an individual to take a drug test in order to receive benefits. Failing to take the test would make an individual ineligible for benefits for at least six months.

In other words: anyone who couldn’t or didn’t want to take a drug test would be denied health care. As the President & CEO of St. John's Well Child and Family Center, the largest health care provider in South Los Angeles, I believe that health is a fundamental human right — and I know just what this heartless policy would truly mean for our community.

First, this program creates unnecessary roadblocks for people who are already struggling. It asks low-income families to arrange for time off, senior care, or transportation for multiple agency visits. For many, this simply isn’t possible. In fact, Walker’s program is likely to have a larger impact on people who can’t follow through on a test, rather than fail one. Overall, welfare recipients test positive for drug use at a significantly lower rate than the national average. In 2015, only 321 positive tests were found across the ten states that currently screen Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants for drug use. In more than one of those states, not a single person tested positive.

Collectively, these states still spent over nearly $2 million taxpayer dollars for these ineffective screenings. If Republicans actually cared about people struggling with addiction, that hard earned money could have been put towards increased caseworkers, funding for rehab centers, and community programs-- things proven to benefit addicts. Instead, as Republicans callously slash funding for vital programs, they remain willing to invest in failed programs like the one that Walker is proposing. Walker’s Medicaid changes will come at a hefty price for Wisconsin taxpayers — when fully phased in they would cost an estimated $48 million a year in state and federal money and affect about 49,000 childless adults a year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Of course, someone may refuse a drug test simply because they are, in fact, struggling with addiction. Sure, Walker included a provision mandating treatment if an individual’s drug test comes back positive — but what he fails to acknowledge is that Medicaid already covers treatment for drug addiction, without requiring a test which people suffering from addiction may avoid due to social stigma and fear. His plan does not offer a sustainable alternative to the life-saving addiction and substance abuse treatment provided by Medicaid, relied upon by so many communities across the country.

Bottom line: under plans like Scott Walker’s, no one wins. In order to truly serve their constituents, Walker and his Republican colleagues should invest in Medicaid and its effective drug treatment and prevention programs. As the largest provider of services to Medicaid recipients in South Los Angeles, St. John’s will not stand by as our family in Wisconsin -- or any of the 74 million Americans who rely on Medicaid -- are stripped of their lifeline.