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December 18, 2013 11:25 AM A Closer Look At Those Falling Into the Wingnut Hole

By Ed Kilgore

Yesterday the Kaiser Family Foundation released some badly needed data on the characteristics of Americans who fallen into what I’ve dubbed the “wingnut hole,” and that others just call the Coverage Gap. These are the people too poor to qualify for Obamacare subsidies for purchasing insurance in the exchanges, but too “rich” to qualify for the Medicaid benefits the drafters of the ACA assumed they would get but that their state governments blocked once the Supreme Court let them make the choice. Here’s the Kaiser Family Foundation’s take on the problem:

Medicaid eligibility for adults in states not expanding their programs is quite limited—the median income limit for parents in 2014 will be 47% of poverty, or an annual income of about $9,200 a year for a family of three, and in nearly all states not expanding, childless adults will remain ineligible. Further, because the ACA envisioned low-income people receiving coverage through Medicaid, it does not provide financial assistance to people below poverty for other coverage options. As a result, in states that do not expand Medicaid, many adults will fall into a “coverage gap” of having incomes above Medicaid eligibility limits but below the lower limit for Marketplace premium tax credits…. Nationwide, nearly five million poor uninsured adults are in this situation.

Who are they? Well, they’re mostly southerners:

The nearly five million poor uninsured adults who will fall into the “coverage gap” are spread across the states not expanding their Medicaid programs but are concentrated in states with the largest uninsured populations…. More than a fifth of people in the coverage gap reside in Texas, which has both a large uninsured population and very limited Medicaid eligibility. Sixteen percent live in Florida, eight percent in Georgia, seven percent live in North Carolina, and six percent live in Pennsylvania. There are no uninsured adults in the coverage gap in Wisconsin because the state will provide Medicaid eligibility to adults up to the poverty level in 2014.
The geographic distribution of the population in the coverage gap reflects both population distribution and regional variation in state take-up of the ACA Medicaid expansion. As a whole, more people—and in particular more poor uninsured adults— reside in the South than in other regions. Further, the South has higher uninsured rates4 and more limited Medicaid eligibility than other regions. Southern states also have disproportionately opted not to expand their programs, and 11 of the 25 states not expanding Medicaid are in the South. These factors combined mean nearly 80% of people in the coverage gap reside in the South

They’re also hard to define by race or ethnicity:

The characteristics of the population that falls into the coverage gap largely mirror those of poor uninsured adults. For example, because racial/ethnic minorities are more likely than White non-Hispanics to lack insurance coverage and are more likely to live in families with low incomes, they are disproportionately represented among poor uninsured adults and among people in the coverage gap. Nationally, about half (47%) of uninsured adults in the coverage gap are White non-Hispanics, 21% are Hispanic, and 27% are Black.

And they’re often the people left behind in wave after wave of incremental reforms based on expanding Medicaid and S-CHIP benefits to kids and their parents.

The characteristics of people in the coverage gap also reflect Medicaid program rules in states not expanding their programs. Because non-disabled adults without dependent children are ineligible for Medicaid coverage in most states not expanding Medicaid, regardless of their income, adults without dependent children account for a disproportionate share of people in the coverage gap (76%)…. Still, nearly a quarter (24%) of people in the coverage gap are poor parents whose income places them above Medicaid eligibility levels. The parent status of people in the coverage gap varies by state….due to variation in current state eligibility.

What doesn’t vary state by state is how outrageous it is to exclude the people who by the accident of a court decision fall into the “wingnut gap” of benefits available to people just above them on the income scale. They are for the most part the “working poor,” people with part-time or small-business jobs that don’t come with private health insurance.

They are ineligible for publicly-financed coverage in their state, most do not have access to employer-based coverage through a job, and all have limited income available to purchase coverage on their own.

You can argue that these people are those most in need of the Affordable Care Act, yet most likely to be excluded from its benefits.

These are also people with an unusually large personal stake in the outcome of the 2014 elections—the kind of people conservatives are thinking of when they conclude Obamacare has created a “tipping point” wherein actual or potential beneficiaries of government programs are essentially being bribed into voting Democratic. But if there’s been any growing groundswell of political mobilization of people in the “wingnut hole,” it has been very quiet. So they will likely become objects of anti-redistribution propaganda from the Right without becoming subjects of any major Democratic comeback.

The latest hope for people in the “wingnut hole” has been enthusiasm for securing Medicaid expansion by very broad waivers allowing states to work their will on the Medicaid program as a whole. To be very blunt about it, such “deals” have tended towards broadening the base of people eligible for Medicaid while degrading its benefits, with the federal government paying almost all the cost of implementation and sharing the political risk that it might fail. The situation is a reminder that about a hundred fifty years after the end of the Civil War, southern states are still fighting the “Reconstruction” potential of federal funds to interfere with the region’s grim perpetuation of inequality.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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