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Pa. Medicaid surge reveals coronavirus devastation


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 22, 2021
Medicaid numbers, 'per diem' ban, vaccine shift, college try, fraud findings, stimulus debts, and Pennsylvania's own 'Snyder Cut.' It's Monday.

Last year's spike in Pennsylvania Medicaid enrollment exceeded single-year increases seen during the Great Recession, a Spotlight PA analysis found, demonstrating how uniquely challenging and far-reaching the coronavirus crisis has been.

Enrollment rose by nearly 13% statewide or more than 366,000 people. That's a higher rate of growth than seen in 15 of the 16 years prior. Sizable jumps were also seen in historically wealthier counties. 

Expanded eligibility rules are part of the reason why. But experts say the pandemic has only highlighted an existing need, long-running access hurdles, and a partisan urge to rein in Medicaid enrollments and related costs. 

THE CONTEXT: Medicaid costs are shared by states and the federal government — and those costs were going up before the pandemic accelerated the trend. Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services, which oversees the program here, pointed to the state's ballooning Medicaid tab in requesting an extra $941 million from the legislature earlier this month.

In the long term, many state Republicans who support lowering what Pennsylvania spends on Medicaid also support the addition of work requirements for adults in the health-care program — something the Biden and Wolf administrations both oppose. 

Republicans say the move would help people earn their way out of poverty and reduce costs, calling the program's current growth financially unsustainable. Critics say the move will actually raise administrative costs and open holes in a crucial safety net. The U.S. Supreme Court was expected to hear arguments on Medicaid work requirements later this month but ultimately decided against it, leaving states to continue the debate as pandemic-shuttered economies slowly begin to reopen. 

“I realize in the last year everything’s been turned upside down with this terrible pandemic,” said state Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill). “But someday this pandemic will end. And I still believe it’s an issue that we need to address.”


“Many of his citations are completely false and do not support his claims whatsoever.”

—Graduate student James Gregory on World War I research that earned state Sen. Doug Mastriano a doctorate, a book deal, and now a growing academic backlash
VACCINE UPDATE: President Joe Biden says the U.S. hit his goal of administering 100 million COVID-19 shots ahead of schedule and teased the possibility of a new goal of 200 million doses by April 30. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is touting the success of its efforts to vaccinate seniors, but federal data reveals a very different story, per the Post-Gazette. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
» The Fettermans: Join Spotlight PA at 5 p.m. April 6 for a conversation and reader Q&A with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Second Lady Gisele Fetterman on immigration, legal cannabis, racism, and more. RSVP FOR FREE

POST IT: Spring is popping up at Buhl Mansion Guesthouse and Spa in Sharon. Thanks, @buhlmansion, for tagging us! Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
MONEY BAN: State Sen. Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny) is re-introducing a ban on per diem reimbursements for state lawmakers following a Spotlight PA report that detailed the hefty sums legislators claimed for lodging and meals during the pandemic — prompting visceral reactions from their constituents. “We will have tough decisions ahead as we rebuild our economy … and sacrifice has to be shared,” Brewster said.

'NO EVIDENCE': Viral Erie election fraud claims remain unfounded after a Postal Service probe into reports of backdated 2020 presidential ballots came up empty, the Associated Press reports. Meanwhile, local officials are preparing for new elections and warning that Pennsylvania's mail-in ballot deadlines are still too tight and threaten logistical nightmares and voter disenfranchisement as a result.

POLICY SHIFT: Pennsylvania is updating its COVID-19 vaccine plan to favor the biggest providers and telling small ones, like independent drug stores, not to expect more first doses, the Post-Gazette reports. Small providers with patients awaiting second doses will receive them, but they should not schedule any more first-round appointments for now, per new guidance.

COLLEGE TRY: The leader of Pennsylvania’s state university system wants to recommend its dissolution in an attempt to convince lawmakers of the need for drastic action amid bleak financial projections and declining enrollments, PennLive reports. Chancellor Dan Greenstein's comments elicited strong reactions from faculty and lawmakers who called the remarks reckless and coercive.

DEBT SERVICE: U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) blocked a bill that would have prevented private debt collectors from garnishing stimulus checks, saying wages have actually gone up for low-income workers faster than high-income ones, USA Today's Capitol Bureau reports. While technically true, critics noted the misleading percentages used in the argument and the widespread job losses that also made it possible
RENT RELIEF: Pennsylvania’s latest pandemic rent relief program is up and running, this time with fewer restrictions and no cap on monthly aid, Billy Penn reports. Applications are being accepted via the commonwealth’s COMPASS portal, with residents of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and a handful of regions being redirected instead to locally operated companion sites.

WILD CARD: Wawa customers whose payment card numbers were stolen in a massive 2019 data breach could get $5 or $15 gift cards as part of a $9-million class action lawsuit settlement, The Inquirer reports. This kind of settlement isn't all that unusual, but it often attracts scrutiny from courts trying to determine if the value is real or an illusion.

OPEN INVITE: Actor and Neffsville native Taylor Kinney invited Jimmy Fallon to Lancaster's Zoetropolis restaurant-theater combo, which Kinney owns, during an appearance on "The Tonight Show" last week. Fallon welcomed the offer, saying, “If you have an open mic, I can’t help myself… watch me. I’m going to come for you,” LancasterOnline reports.

FULL CIRCLE: In 1996, Carly Jeffris was a newborn undergoing an operation at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Today, she's a NICU nurse there and working alongside the very doctor who performed her surgery. "That she's back helping babies with surgical problems on my neonatal team is just like mind-boggling," the doctor told 6ABC.

COMMONWEALTH CUT: Google the phrase "Snyder Cut" and you'll get a slew of results about Zack Snyder's new longform "Justice League" movie. But the only "Snyder Cut" that really matters is still the molar punishing, honey mustard kind from the Hanover, Pennsylvania snack-maker of the same name.
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Friday's answer: Academic

Congrats to our weekly winner: Anna H.

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Craig W., David I., Roe K., Stephanie S., Jill G., Susan D., Elaine C., Neal W., Kim C., Jessica K., Guy M., Dixie S., Nancy S., Beth T., Christine M., Bruce B., Bill C., Maureen G., Mary Kay M., Jill A., Kerri G., Bruce B., Lil N., Becky C., Chris M., George S., Cameron T., Irene R., Heidi B., Dennis M., Yvette R., David W., Joel S., Paul H., Bob R., Carol D., Kevin H., Suzanne S., Elizabeth W., Patricia R., Rick D., Perry H., Nancy S., Paula T., Marsha B., Jeff M., George S., John B., John A., Al M., Alice B., Lex M., William M., Karen W., and James B.


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