After more than a year of waiting somewhat impatiently, state leaders are expressing relief now that federal authorities have granted a waiver to bring in more than $100 million in Medicaid services for up to 6,000 Utahns living in poverty. As Salt Lake City’s mayor said, “This is a big deal.” Without the money, the state would be hard-pressed to make good on its promise to help people suffering from opioid addiction who are contributing to the state’s seething homeless problem.
There has been a lot of political back-and-forth in identifying the proper level of federal assistance Utah would solicit from Washington. Two years ago, Gov. Gary Herbert in his “Healthy Utah” plan sought as much as $1 billion in funds available through the Affordable Care Act to cover more than 125,000 people. The Legislature, generally disdainful of the health care act, opted instead to pass a bill that authorized a waiver for roughly the amount granted this week. As the governor said at the time that measure was passed, it’s “better than zero.”
Indeed. The money forthcoming will allow the state to expand treatment options for a substantial number of people who have been in and out of homelessness as a result of addiction. The connection between the opioid epidemic and Utah’s homeless problem made the application for a Medicaid waiver all the more urgent. Operation Rio Grande has resulted in the rounding up of a number of people who are on the streets because of their dependence on narcotics. Behavioral treatment is an important avenue for them to escape the cycle that has them rotating among the streets, homeless shelters and jail. Without the Medicaid waiver, it’s unlikely the state could muster the resources to provide enough beds to come close to meeting the need for treatment.
There is an abundance of research tying addiction to short-term poverty. Studies show people who fall into drug abuse are less likely to hold on to a job. They also show that when people lose jobs, they are more at risk to fall into drug dependence. The 2008 recession displaced many workers. This may have had some effect on drug use and, potentially, homelessness. It is a compassionate and humane necessity that the state do what it can to bring those people to a place where they may pursue rehabilitation.
While many of the homeless who suffer addiction and who have been processed through the system as a result of increased police presence in the Rio Grande have gotten treatment, many have simply dispersed into other neighborhoods, raising concerns in other parts of the community.
State and local leaders have worked hard to tackle the homeless problem and have rightly identified the need to treat drug dependency as a cornerstone of a solution. Those who work with the needy argue that the waiver will offer coverage for only a small part of the population that could use assistance. But the newly granted waiver will nevertheless provide help for those most in need.