N.H. expanded Medicaid supporters stress role in fighting the drug crisis

Supporters of expanded Medicaid in New Hampshire stresses its role in combating the state’s drug crisis as a bill to reauthorize the program got its first House hearing Tuesday.

The current program uses Medicaid funds to purchase private health plans on the state’s marketplace for about 50,000 low-income residents, but it will expire this year if lawmakers don’t reauthorize it. The bill, which passed the Senate this month, would continue the program for five years but change its structure to a managed care model. The plan also would impose new work requirements on enrollees and use 5 percent of liquor revenues to cover the state’s cost as federal funding decreases.

The House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee’s hearing on the bill came a day after President Donald Trump visited the state to lay out his plan for tackling the nationwide opioid epidemic. In addition to his speech at Manchester Community College, he also visited a Safe Station program that encourages people with addiction to visit fire stations to get referred to help.

Michele Merritt, president of the health care advocacy group New Futures, said the vast majority of those who have gotten such help are covered by Medicaid.

“It’s really important to understand that Safe Stations does not work without health insurance,” she told the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee.

Similarly, participants in the state’s drug court systems are required to have insurance, she said, and 90 percent of them are Medicaid recipients.

The bill’s supporters noted that nearly 13,000 people have received treatment for substance use disorders through Medicaid since the expanded program began in August 2014.

“But for that treatment, how much worse would our substance abuse problem have been?” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, the bill’s main sponsor.

Overall, more than 130,000 people have been enrolled in the program, but only 1,500 have been participants since the beginning, said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Myers. Those figures show that the program is working as intended by giving people temporary help, he said.

That’s what happened for Niambi Mercado, who told the committee she was working two jobs as a full-time graduate student in 2016 when she ended up hospitalized for a week for a dental infection. She had only $20 in the bank but her Medicaid coverage allowed her to avoid costly medical bills, she said.

“The program assisted me when I needed it most, allowing me to get healthy, finish my degree, and get a full-time job here in New Hampshire with private insurance,” she said. “Please continue Medicaid expansion for the hard-working people of New Hampshire like me.”

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