Warnock pushes to close Medicaid coverage gap amid tough reelection battle

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) is making a last-ditch effort to add a provision providing health coverage in GOP-led states declining Medicaid expansion to Democrats’ sweeping package headed for a vote in the coming days.

Warnock is making the push as he faces a tough reelection race in November and seeks to highlight an issue that could give him a leg up in the race against Republican Herschel Walker, a former NFL player.

The Georgia senator says he plans to offer an amendment to the Democrats’ massive health, climate and tax package, headed for a vote as soon as this weekend, to provide health coverage in the 12 states that have still declined to expand Medicaid, including Georgia.

The effort faces long odds given that Democrats have already reached a deal on the package and Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), a key vote, has raised concerns on the subject in the past.

But even if the amendment does not pass, the fight for it could give Democrats a political boost and highlight a contrast with Republicans.

“It’s a winning issue,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, noting that polls show a majority of Georgians are in support of the policy.

A University of Georgia poll last year found 64.5 percent of Georgians said the state should expand Medicaid, compared to 19.7 percent who opposed it and 15.8 percent who said they did not know.

Bullock said the “challenge” for Democrats is to get voters to focus on popular issues such as Medicaid expansion and not on economic headwinds or the price of gasoline.

Walker’s position on Medicaid expansion is not clear, although most Republican lawmakers oppose the policy, which was created by the Affordable Care Act, a long-running source of GOP scorn. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

There are roughly 2.2 million people falling through the cracks and unable to access health coverage through Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, in the 12 GOP-led states that have declined to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. That number includes 269,000 people in Georgia alone, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Warnock’s amendment would make those people eligible for health coverage by allowing them to access financial assistance to buy insurance on the Affordable Care Act marketplaces for three years, at a cost of roughly $50 billion.

Warnock, who has called for expanding Medicaid for years, said Thursday that people in the “coverage gap” are “the working poor and they deserve care.”

“I will continue to fight for us to fill the coverage gap,” he said. “And if I have to introduce it as an amendment on the floor, I’m prepared to do that.”

A Warnock spokesperson said he “may” call for a vote on his amendment, although that is not set in stone. A vote would force Republicans to go on the record against the policy but could also highlight Democratic divisions if Manchin were to vote no.

A spokesperson for Manchin did not respond to a request for comment, but he is widely seen as the obstacle among Democrats to including the policy. He has expressed concerns in the past about giving more federal aid to the holdout states than was received by states that already expanded.

“I don’t quite know how the amendment process is going to play out,” said Jim Manley, an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “There are still some decisions to be made. But as a Democratic strategist, I sure hope that Republicans try to knock this one out because it’s going to make a great campaign ad for [Warnock] and for others.”

Warnock has a slight lead over Walker in the polls, according to a FiveThirtyEight average. Walker has also faced a series of controversies, including reporting on his three additional children he had previously not discussed publicly.

But in a Republican-leaning state such as Georgia and with President Biden facing lagging approval ratings and challenges from inflation, highlighting issues such as health care could help give Democrats a boost. Running against Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act helped power Democrats to midterm victories in 2018.

Warnock is also touting other elements of the Democrats’ package, including measures to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and to cap the cost of insulin at $35 per month.

The drug pricing provisions passing would be major victories for Democrats, who have been pushing for years to allow Medicare to negotiate prices.

But the absence of extending Medicaid expansion to all 50 states would still leave a hole in the Affordable Care Act.

“In the immediate term, we’re really pushing hard to see this win on the Senate floor,” said Frederick Isasi, executive director of the health care consumer advocacy group Families USA. “If it doesn’t, then it’s going to immediately become one of the key issues within the midterm elections.”

Updated at 9:07 pm

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