States get extension to wind down pandemic benefits

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Even with the 90-day extension to the public health emergency, states must still reevaluate which of the 80 million aid recipients still qualify for benefits and construct safety nets for those who don't.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has extended the declaration of a national health emergency over the Covid-19 pandemic another 90 days, beginning tomorrow.

Increased federal support for health and food benefits will remain in place through much of the summer as a result. But a group representing state Medicaid directors believes this extension will likely be the last. And that means these expanded safety net programs would end in July, potentially posing hardships for struggling Americans and new pressures for state and localities.

“We continue to expect that the current 90-day extension will be the last one,” Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, said in an email.

Becerra, in his announcement, did not indicate whether he believes the latest extension of the emergency declaration will be the final one. He has, however, promised to give 60 days notice before declaring an end to the emergency, an HHS spokesman said. So a formal heads-up could come in about a month if the order is on track to expire.

The end of the state of emergency, first declared by President Trump in January 2020, would mean big changes for major aid programs. 

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, gave states greater flexibility to let more people receive food stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and increased the benefits many recipients could get during the pandemic by about $82 a month. The law also waived a three-month limit on unemployed, childless adults, younger than 50, accessing the safety net program.

These expanded food stamp benefits would all end when the emergency order expires. 

Also ending would be an increase in Medicaid costs the federal government has been paying during the pandemic. The federal government and states share the cost of the program, which provides health coverage for low-income Amiercans. 

In response to the public health crisis, Congress boosted what is known as the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP, by 6.2%. The move was a response to people losing health care coverage from their jobs in the early days of the pandemic. 

But in return for getting the extra money, also approved in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, states were barred from removing anyone from their Medicaid rolls. 

State Medicaid directors have been worried about the mammoth task that winding down the pandemic-era initiative will create for them.

With the prohibition on removing people from the Medicaid rolls lifted, states will have to reevaluate who among roughly 80 million program participants will still be eligible. At the same time, they say they will be under pressure to move quickly to remove ineligible people from the program because the roughly $90 billion a year in increased federal Medicaid funding states have been receiving would come to a stop as soon as September.

The Medicaid directors have asked for the increased federal funding to continue for 14 months to help ease the transition for states.

At the same time, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, the co-chairs of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ food policy task force, have said millions are still relying on the increased food aid, even if the emergency declaration were to end. 

Joined by Richmond, Virginia Mayor Levar Stoney, they wrote the Democratic chairpeople and the top Republicans on the House and Senate agriculture committees last month, asking for the increased food stamp benefits to continue.

Spokespeople for Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Rep. David Scott of Georgia, the chairpeople of those committees, have not responded to inquiries.

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.

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