- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2016

The administration pleaded with reluctant states to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, insisting Monday that nearly 2 million people with mental illnesses or drug problems could get insurance help.

In a new report, the Department of Health and Human Services said granting them government-funded health care will be an economic boon to their communities.

It would also help 371,000 people overcome depression, since nearly a third of those with serious mental illnesses are expected to seek treatment if they have Medicaid coverage.

“By giving them an easy door into treatment, you have a chance at improving their productivity,” said Richard Frank, assistant HHS secretary for planning and evaluation.

States have the option of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and 31 states and the District of Columbia have done so, extending coverage to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal government covers most of the costs of the expansion.

Yet in many states Republicans say their Medicaid programs are already bloated, and that piling on new enrollees will bust their budgets down the road. They also don’t trust Washington to hold up its end of the funding.

On Capitol Hill GOP leaders want to scrap Obamacare, period, and start over with “market-oriented” reforms, rendering the expansion debate moot.

Countering those arguments, HHS highlighted Republican-led states they said could benefit from expansion.

For instance, nearly a quarter of Texans whose incomes would qualify them for Medicaid post-expansion suffer from mental illness or a substance abuse disorder, according to the study. The proportion is even higher in Florida, at 27.7 percent, HHS said.

The study said 16.4 percent of insured people with substance abuse or behavioral problems sought treatment during 2010-2014 in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, compared to 11.5 percent of similarly situated, yet uninsured, persons in those states.

The timing of the report coincides with efforts on Capitol Hill to address the opioid and heroin epidemic that is ravaging the country and forge bipartisan mental health reforms despite election-year politics that are otherwise splintering Congress.

“As we talk to states, both on the Republican side and Democratic side, behavioral health inevitably comes up as a topic of discussion,” said Mr. Frank, adding the talks are fueled in part by the opioid crisis.

“We thought it was a good time to inject some new facts into that discussion,” he said.

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