Gov. Maura Healey wants her $55.5 billion state budget to offer a “glide path” to help Massachusetts and its residents adapt to the coming end of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency, she told state lawmakers Tuesday.
During the pandemic, the federal government stepped up its support for an array of state programs. But with the emergency now set to expire on May 11, one major question facing Beacon Hill budget writers is how much of that spending the state can afford on its own.
As Healey and her budget team briefed the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee on the details of her spending plan, its House and Senate chairmen both had the emergency’s end on their mind.
“From food assistance to greater SNAP benefits to expanded funds for MassHealth, those COVID-era programs are being phased out by the federal government for one reason or another,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said. “The commonwealth has picked up the cost for some of these programs over the last couple years, such as universal school meals. However, a longer-term, more fiscally realistic approach needs to be addressed as we determine how to best manage this phasing-out of certain federal programs going forward.”
In addition to Healey’s annual budget proposal, lawmakers are currently working their way through a separate supplemental spending bill that would steer $65 million more into the state’s free school meals program and use $130 million in state money to provide some elevated SNAP benefits after the federal government’s pandemic-era boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program expired last week.
“Obviously the last three years have been unprecedented in terms of what we’ve seen, including relief that’s come from the federal government, and with the recognition that’s going away, our proposal and where we’ve been on a few things that we’ve filed is an effort to try to work, of course, with all of you in providing people with a basic glide path off of this,” Healey told lawmakers.
MassHealth, the Massachusetts Medicaid program, is the single largest program state government operates, accounting for over 30% of overall spending. Healey’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 funds MassHealth at $19.8 billion, down $1.9 billion from this year’s estimated spending.
Matt Gorzkowicz, Healey’s administration and finance secretary, said Tuesday that decrease is driven by a projected drop in MassHealth’s caseload. Preliminary projections show the current caseload of 2.3 million MassHealth members could be down to 1.9 million by the end of the next fiscal year, he said.
State Medicaid agencies received additional federal reimbursement during the public health emergency, tied to a freeze in eligibility redeterminations that move people off Medicaid coverage when they no longer qualify for it.
Gorzkowicz said the $19.8 billion funding level for MassHealth “maintains affordable, equitable, comprehensive health care coverage for Medicaid-eligible members without reducing benefits.” He said the agency has outreach plans in place, and Healey's budget proposes $5 million in additional funding at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services for communication with MassHealth members.
“The goal is not to simply disenroll folks,” Gorzkowicz said. “The goal is to determine proper eligibility, proper coverage of care, and make sure that through our Health Connector and through employer-sponsored insurance that folks have the insurance they need.”
Healey, who met with Biden administration officials on a trip to Washington, D.C. last month, told lawmakers she’s ready to advocate with the federal government for what the state needs.
“I will tell you and offer to you that whatever I can do in terms of advocacy vis-a-vis the Biden administration with respect to making some allowances or changing the course of some of what is happening around the end of the public health emergency,” she said.
Lawmakers on the Ways and Means Committee plan seven other hearings on Healey’s budget before the House and Senate each rewrite her bill and debate their own versions. The next hearing, focused on education and local aid, is scheduled for Monday, March 13, at UMass Amherst.
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