Requiring Medicaid recipients to work is a “hard-hearted” way to limit enrollment, according to Oleta Fitzgerald of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Fitzgerald made her comments at a public hearing Wednesday held by Mississippi’s Division of Medicaid. The agency is currently weighing whether to ask the federal government for a waiver that would allow Medicaid to impose a work requirement on some recipients.

The hearing, one of two required by the federal government before Medicaid can make its official request, was sparsely attended with just five members of the public present, three of whom spoke.

But these speakers each had strong opinions. Dr. Jameson Taylor, interim president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, argued that a work requirement would provide an incentive for Medicaid recipients to find jobs.

“Work is the best antipoverty measure out there,” Taylor said. “Work elevates people. It helps them grow financially. Work gives people dignity, so if we’re going to be inviting folks on Medicaid to improve their lives, the goal is to get them off of Medicaid (and) into the private sector.”

Fitzgerald disagreed, arguing that the prospect of losing health insurance won’t compel recipients to find jobs, pointing out that unlike other forms of public assistance, Medicaid doesn’t supplement a person’s income or pay for tangible necessities such as food.

“What are we trying to do here? If we’re trying to save money, (cutting out these beneficiaries) is not going to save us a lot of money,” Fitzgerald said. “If you’re on Medicaid you’re not putting a dollar in your pocket. The doctor is the only one who’s getting paid.”

More than 700,000 Mississippians receive Medicaid. Of these, approximately half, or 56% are children. Another 37% are either pregnant women, elderly or disabled. None of these populations would be affected by the work requirement.

Instead, the work requirement targets low-income parents or caretakers, who account for 7%  of Medicaid recipients. This equates to approximately 50,000 beneficiaries, although caretakers responsible for children or other people who cannot be left alone would be exempted, reducing the number further.

In order to qualify for Medicaid in Mississippi as a low-income caretaker, a person with one dependent cannot receive more than $306 dollars a month in income. The waiver would require beneficiaries in this category to work at least 20 hours a week. A minimum wage of $7.25 an hour equals $580 a month, making these recipients ineligible.

Janice Sherman of the Mississippi Primary Health Association, who attended Wednesday’s hearing but did not speak, said this amounts to a contradiction.

“The work requirement would get you kicked off of Medicaid,” Sherman said.

If the Division of Medicaid does apply for a waiver, it likely will receive support from the federal government. Last week, Seema Verma, the administrator for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, announced that the Trump administration would approve proposals from states to require work or community engagement for people who want to receive Medicaid. Previously, the Obama administration turned similar proposals, arguing that they did not promote health care coverage.

Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.