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Kentucky lawmakers nix extra Medicaid benefits, but Beshear will act to keep them

A dentist wearing a surgical mask leans over a patient who's receiving dental services.
Courtesy of the University of Louisville
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear expanded Medicaid this year to cover more dental, hearing and vision-related services. But the state legislature nullified the expansion, citing procedural concerns.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear expanded Medicaid coverage for dental, hearing and vision services this year. But GOP lawmakers rejected the change, saying the way he did it was improper.

Senate Bill 65 nullifies the administrative directives Beshear implemented to provide the extra coverage to Kentuckians. Its lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Stephen West of Paris, said they took this step because lawmakers determined the rules were deficient.

West stressed that the governor used state dollars for his Medicaid plan without the appropriate legislative authorization.

“Any pullback in Medicaid services lays directly at the feet of the governor,” he said last week as the Senate voted to override Beshear’s veto of SB 65.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, a Democrat from Lexington, criticized Republican senators for passing the bill because the legislation is poised to diminish people’s access to health care services like hearing aids and dentures.

“The sponsor of the bill said these regulations were deficient,” Thomas said as senators voted on the veto. “What’s deficient about providing people hearing so they can hear? What’s deficient about providing people dental care so they can eat?”

Even though the legislature fully approved SB 65 last week, that doesn't mean the ultimate fate of the expanded benefits is sealed.

West himself recently said it’s possible the Beshear administration soon could return with a new regulation to try to salvage the expansion. And the governor, who’s up for reelection this year, has indicated he plans to pursue that option.

Beshear emphasized how unaddressed health problems keep people out of the workforce, so getting Medicaid to cover more services for people across Kentucky has an economic upside.

“This is a no-brainer, right?” he told reporters in March. “This is what gets people back to work.”

Terry Brooks, executive director of the organization Kentucky Youth Advocates, noted around 900,000 people potentially could have used the Medicaid benefits that SB 65 put on the chopping block.

“That’s more Kentuckians than the entire population of Alaska,” he told LPM News Monday.

The people eligible for these benefits are adults enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program who earn about $18,700 or less per year as an individual or $38,200 or less for a family of four, according to information publicized by the Beshear administration. Young folks aged 21 and under who are enrolled in Medicaid already are eligible for the broader dental, hearing and vision coverage.

In his veto message, Beshear said over 1,000 people across the commonwealth already had received dental services since the expanded benefits took effect in January. Almost 7,000 people got vision services through the new coverage, while 40 people got hearing services.

If someone started receiving a specific service before SB 65 was enacted, the new law allows Medicaid to pay for such services until they’re completed.

Brooks said he hopes the executive and legislative branches can reach a compromise that allows Kentuckians to receive these broader benefits over the long term.

“Because those 900,000 Kentuckians should not pay a price for a political fight in Frankfort,” he said.

Even though the expanded benefits are for adults, Brooks said they indirectly benefit kids, too. That’s because there’s a link between the health care parents are able to obtain for themselves and the health care their kids receive.

“Bottom line is: If parents have access, inevitably their kids get better health care,” he said. “If I’m a mom or dad and I’m getting my teeth checked out, there’s something that clicks about ‘Oh, I need to get that for my son or daughter.'”

Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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