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Arkansas' Hutchinson joins other Republican governors calling for end to COVID emergency

Michael Hibblen
Gov. Asa Hutchinson getting a COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 18, 2021.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has joined 24 other Republican governors in calling for President Joe Biden to end the COVID-19 national health emergency.

In a letter dated Monday, the 25 governors asserted, “While the virus will be with us for some time, the emergency phase of the pandemic is behind us. We have come so far since the beginning of the pandemic – we now have the tools and information necessary to help protect our communities from COVID-19.”

The governors noted that Biden had said in a September interview with the “60 Minutes” news program that “The pandemic is over,” and that the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution to terminate the emergency by a vote of 61-37 on Nov. 15.

The governors also asked Biden to allow the federal public health emergency, which has been extended until Jan. 11, to expire in April. The letter states the governors are assuming the public health emergency will be renewed for 90 days starting that day because they have not been told otherwise.

The federal government has said it would give states 60 days notice of the end date, which means the notice would have had to come by Nov. 11 if it were to end in January. The emergency was first declared in January 2020. It has been regularly renewed at three-month intervals since it began.

The letter said the public health emergency is negatively affecting states because it is increasing the number of people covered by Medicaid regardless of whether they are still eligible. States have added 20 million Medicaid recipients since the pandemic began. While an enhanced federal match has helped alleviate the burden, states are still required to increase their match and cannot disenroll members.

“Making the situation worse, we know that a considerable number of individuals have returned to employer sponsored coverage or are receiving coverage through the individual market, and yet states still must still account and pay for their Medicaid enrollment in our non-federal share. This is costing states hundreds of millions of dollars,” they wrote.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services has been preparing for an end to the public health emergency. In a meeting with reporters Nov. 4, Director Mark White said that when the emergency ends, DHS would start removing potentially hundreds of thousands of ineligible Medicaid recipients for the first time in three years.

“Unwinding the public health emergency will be the largest and most complex effort state Medicaid programs have undertaken since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act almost a decade ago,” he said.

White said an end to the emergency would “trigger off a chain of events as well as a plan that we have been working on for many months to implement.”

Former President Donald Trump on March 18, 2020, signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which increased federal matching Medicaid funds by 6.2% in exchange for states meeting certain conditions, including extending eligibility throughout the public health emergency. Arkansas’ match rate tends otherwise to be around 71%.

During the emergency, the only ways clients have lost Medicaid benefits were if they moved out of state, requested to end coverage, were incarcerated or died.

As of Dec. 19, 36.7% of the state’s Medicaid population, or 417,716 of Medicaid’s 1,138,372 clients, were considered to be “extended.”

Those clients ordinarily would have been disenrolled because they reached an income that exceeded eligibility limits, because they did not respond to a request for information for renewal, because they had a change in their care that would have ended their eligibility, or because they aged out of a program.

As of Nov. 4, the state’s Medicaid rolls have increased by 23.5%, or 217,306 individuals, since March 2020.

Under Act 780 of 2021, DHS is required to finish redetermining eligibility for extended individuals within 180 days of the emergency’s end.

Also signing the letter to Biden were Govs. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Ron DeSantis of Florida, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Brad Little of Idaho, Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Key Reynolds of Iowa, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Mike Parson of Missouri, Greg Gianforte of Montana, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Greg Abbott of Texas, Spencer Cox of Utah, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, and Mark Gordon of Wyoming.

State Republican Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland, Phil Scott of Vermont, and Jim Justice of West Virginia did not sign the letter.

Gov.-elect Sarah Sanders’ spokesperson Judd Deere said she is supportive of the letter and ending the pandemic emergency declaration, which would likely happen once she is sworn into office in January.

“President Biden has himself said ‘the pandemic is over.’ The Governor-elect is supportive of this letter and believes it’s time for the federal government to end the declared national emergency,” Deere said in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.