MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Friday, a federal appeals court struck down a provision of Arkansas’s Medicaid program that required able-bodied recipients to work or risk being kicked off the rolls. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said he’s hopeful the U.S. Supreme Court will take on the case.
Arkansas’ approval of work requirements was the first in a larger campaign for President Donald Trump whose administration had hoped to make it easier for states to enact these types of policies.
But critics said because of the plan’s rollout, the damage has already been done to Arkansas residents caught in the political crossfire.
“While the lawsuit was going on, we helped hundreds of people try to maintain their health insurance in the face of these illegal work requirements,” said Kevin De Liban, an attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas.
De Liban calls the decision by a federal appeals court Friday a victory.
The panel of judges said the federal government and Arkansas Works program failed to take into account how many people could be dropped from the rolls for non-compliance. The ruling also indicated Medicaid is solely about providing health coverage to those that need it, and ancillary objectives like improving outcomes or transitioning to commercial coverage are not part of the existing Medicaid program.
“Many of our clients lost their jobs after they lost their health insurance,” De Liban said.
He represents a group of Arkansans who sued after the state enacted the Arkansas Works work requirement in 2018, which mandated Medicaid recipients between the ages of 19 and 49 to work, go to school, or volunteer 80 hours a month to keep their benefits.
In the first five months of the program, 18,000 people or 25% of those subject to the work requirement were kicked out, citing confusion about program reporting rules and lack of internet access.
In 2019, the state dropped the work requirement when a federal judge said it was improperly imposed. Of the 18,000 bounced from coverage, Arkansas DHS said Friday only 6,555 of those have regained coverage.
“Everybody knows you need to have health insurance to be healthy enough so you can work. And these work requirements get that all backwards,” De Liban said.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said in 2018 the policy change balanced compassion with responsibility.
“We want to make sure that we are successful in moving people into work,” he said at the time.
In a statement Friday, Hutchinson said he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear the case.
“The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the Medicaid Act does not permit a work requirement for able-bodied recipients even though one of the purposes of the Medicaid law is to help families be independent. Arkansas implemented a work requirement in order to help recipients get worker training and job opportunities while receiving benefits. It is difficult to understand how this purpose is inconsistent with federal law. The court’s ruling undermines broad public support for expanded health care coverage for those struggling financially. Arkansas Works has expanded access to health care coverage for low-income Arkansans. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will review today¹s ruling but as it stands the Arkansas Works program will be less effective in helping recipients gain independence.”
Arkansas DHS officials said roughly 240,000 Arkansans are enrolled in Arkansas Works.
As for what’s next in the case, it could be late 2020 or 2021 before we hear whether the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear an appeal.