After more than two years, the Covid pandemic is finally winding down. Hospitalizations and deaths are declining rapidly, although the number of new cases is difficult to quantify due to the availability of home test kits. But clearly the emergency situation is abating – except in the eyes of the government.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra recently extended the national public-health emergency for another 90 days. Why would he do that? The Wall Street Journal editorial board says because a permanent crisis means more dependence on government.
The Trump administration first invoked the emergency under the Public Health Service Act on January 31,2020 to reduce red tape for healthcare providers. Congress then linked an expansion of Medicaid and food stamps to the declaration. Progressives liked that and now they don’t want the emergency to end.
How did the emergency declaration change the situation?
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March, 2020, suspended food-stamp work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents during the emergency. These individuals normally can’t receive benefits for more than three months over a three-year period unless they work or participate in a work-training program. Congress also boosted benefits, so the average monthly payment is now double ($240 per person) what it was in 2019.
Suspending work requirements was intended to help workers laid off during lockdowns when few jobs were available. But once lockdowns eased, businesses were desperate to hire. The sweetened food stamps and suspended work-requirements – on top of enhanced unemployment benefits and other transfer payments – reduced the incentive to work. Now you know why the service has slowed down at your local fast-food restaurants!
The Biden Administration is bragging about the low unemployment rate of 3.6% in the latest jobs report. But the reason for this is the low labor participation rate of 62% – people just don’t want to work. There are currently 1.8 job openings for every unemployed worker. Why work when the government is making it easy not to work? As of January, there were nearly 2.5 million more households receiving food stamps than in 2019 and 500,000 more than in April 2020.
Democrats like this situation because they count on the unemployed to vote Democratic. They’re happy to extend these benefits at least until after the November mid-term elections. States may end the supplemental food stamps before the public-health emergency is lifted, but only a dozen or so have done so. Even Republican governors struggle to resist free federal money, and they worry about being attacked for refusing extra benefits amid rising food costs, even if beneficiaries aren’t poor.
What has been the impact of the pandemic on Medicaid enrollment?
Congress increased Medicaid funding for states during the emergency on the condition they don’t remove beneficiaries from their rolls, even if they earn too much to qualify. As a result, Medicaid enrollment has swelled by more than 14.6 million (20%) since February 2020 – more than the increase in ObamaCare enrollment since President Biden took office.
A recent JAMA study found that Wisconsin Medicaid enrollment increased 11.1 percent more than would be expected based on economic factors during the first seven months of the emergency, mostly because ineligible beneficiaries weren’t kicked off. Some states now want to prune their rolls but can’t without losing federal funds. Congress has hooked states on federal transfer payments, and Democrats want them to stay hooked. (Never let a crisis go to waste!)
Have there been any benefits from these emergency rules?
Yes. These emergency rules have let Medicare cover telehealth services and waived a Medicare requirement that beneficiaries be hospitalized for three days before the cost of nursing-home care is covered. These are benefits that should be made permanent. It has long been anathema that the federal government insisted people stay in hospital a full three days before paying nursing home benefits. Why waste money on unnecessary hospital charges when you can save money by getting people into a nursing home sooner?