By CAITY COYNE
CHARLESTON - While West Virginia made progress years ago in decreasing the number of uninsured people in the state, a U.S. Census Bureau report released Tuesday suggests that progress may be slowing after no change in the rate of insurance coverage between 2017 and 2018.
In 2018, 114,000 people - or 6.4% - in West Virginia did not have health insurance, an insignificant change compared to 2017, according to the report. The Associated Press reported that nationally, 27.5 million people, or 8.5% of the population, lacked health insurance coverage last year, an increase of 1.9 million uninsured.
In West Virginia, the number of uninsured rose in 2017, and coupled with the lack of change last year, that may indicate a curb in the early progress made enrolling people after West Virginia expanded Medicaid, according to Sean O'Leary, a policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.
"West Virginia should be proud of the progress made in reducing the number of people who don't have access to health care," O'Leary said in a news release. "Over 114,000 people in the state are still uninsured, and with recent gains in coverage beginning to be lost, there is still work to be done to make sure every West Virginian has access to quality and affordable health care coverage."
West Virginia leaders decided to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act starting in 2014, which significantly reduced the number of uninsured people in the state, according to earlier Census Bureau reports, as well as reports from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
According to West Virginia Kids Count, the Mountain State holds one of the lowest rates nationally of children without health insurance, due to programs like the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), as well as Medicaid expansion in the state. Per the report, only 3% of the state's children live without insurance.
Since 2016, though, about 48,000 people in West Virginia have lost their health insurance.
O'Leary and others in the state worry that moves at the Legislature could exacerbate this trend if state lawmakers continue trying to pass Medicaid work requirements. Earlier this year, a bill was introduced that would have required all "able-bodied" people, with some exceptions, to work, train, volunteer or be in a substance abuse treatment program for at least 20 hours each week to receive Medicaid benefits.
The bill ultimately died in the House of Delegates, but, in his release, O'Leary said future attempts - if passed - could rob even more of their health insurance. If a bill were passed requiring work requirements for Medicaid benefits, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources would have to apply to the federal government allowing such stipulations, he said.
Sixteen states have applied for such waivers, and the federal government has approved six of those applications, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Seven applications are pending, and three have been set aside by a court through tense legal battles involving agencies like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Arkansas implemented its Medicaid work requirements in June 2018 and lawsuits shortly followed, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. One such lawsuit, filed in December 2018, alleges that 17,000 people lost their Medicaid benefits in less than six months after the policy went into effect.
While advocates were pleased to see that West Virginia's numbers didn't slide in 2018, they said it's crucial to keep a focus on shrinking the number of uninsured in the state.
"We must ... remain diligent to not allow our uninsured rates to slip back to pre-Affordable Care Act numbers nor artificially restrict access to vital insurance programs such as Medicaid through harmful policies," Jessica Ice, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said in Tuesday's release.
According to the AP, more people nationally were covered by Medicare in 2018, reflecting the aging of baby boomers. But Medicaid coverage declined. The number of uninsured children also rose, and there were more uninsured adults ages 35-64.
Though the increase in the number of uninsured Americans was modest, it could be a turning point, the first real sign that coverage gains during the presidency of Barack Obama could be at least partly reversed, according to the AP, which reported that this year the number of uninsured could rise again because a previous Republican-led Congress repealed fines under the Affordable Care Act that had been intended to prod people to sign up for coverage.
Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at email@example.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.