Gov. Tomblin's recent decision to accept federal funding to provide health coverage to thousands of working West Virginians through Medicaid will not only improve the health of those who gain insurance, it could also save the state money and help with some other pressing problems, including unemployment, substance abuse and overcrowded prisons.
The 91,000 low-income workers who are expected to gain health insurance, will gain access to medical care that will make them healthier and more productive. They will also gain protection against financial disaster in case of serious illness. For the first time, many of these families will be able to get care that can help them better manage chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, and prevent other illnesses. As workers become more productive and healthier, this could boost our state's economy.
Instead of going to the emergency room, these previously uninsured workers will be able to get the care they need in a doctor's office. This could be a boon to all West Virginians, since part of the cost of unpaid bills for emergency care is typically passed along to privately insured families in the form of higher premiums.
The Medicaid expansion and the broader Affordable Care Act (ACA) will also provide help in our state's battle with drug and alcohol abuse. Currently, Medicaid and private insurance companies are not required to cover substance abuse treatment. However, beginning next year, all insurers must provide that coverage. This means thousands of West Virginians struggling with addiction will be able to get the treatment they need to get back on their feet. It will also save state taxpayers millions of dollars by allowing mental health centers to receive federal funds for substance abuse treatment. This will complement the $7.5 million that Gov. Tomblin has already provided for substance abuse support services across the state.
Additional resources and services to treat substance abuse may also help reduce the state's massive prison population and bring down prison costs, since drug-related offenses are the leading cause of imprisonment in West Virginia.
The state should also save money in other areas such as the Children's Health Insurance Program, corrections, behavioral health, and local health departments, all of which will draw additional federal dollars. The infusion of billions in new federal dollars will also boost West Virginia's health-care industry and increase state and local tax revenue. In fact, the amount of state budget savings and revenue growth means that the expansion of Medicaid will most likely save the state money.
Many states have been examining how expanding Medicaid will benefit them. Some neighboring states like Kentucky and Ohio are projecting that it would save their state budgets tens of millions of dollars per year. West Virginia will be no different.
Gov. Tomblin should be applauded for expanding Medicaid. Not only was it the morally right thing to do, it was also the financially smart thing to do for West Virginia and its residents.Merritt is a health policy analyst and Boettner is the executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.