Republicans Just Tried to Claim that Medicaid Caused the Opioid Epidemic. Surprise, Surprise—They’re Wrong.

Nice try.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.)J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Republicans seem to have found a new culprit to blame for the opioid epidemic: Medicaid.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), held a hearing on the supposed connection between Medicaid and America’s drug crisis. Johnson’s thesis, summed up in a report his team published today, is that Medicaid recipients are taking advantage of their free healthcare by selling their pain pills. The evidence, he argues, is the fact that states that expanded Medicaid have higher overdose rates—and his finding that 1,072 Americans have been charged or convicted of improperly using Medicaid to get pain pills since 2010.

The theory, which has been making its way around the conservative blogosphere for months, adds to the Republican critique of Medicaid: Free healthcare for the poor is not only disincentivizing Americans from working by providing free healthcare—it’s enabling those on it to make money by diverting their pills. “Every time a hard working American pays their taxes, they are inadvertently funding drug dealers with a new supply of high powered opioids that are poisoning our schools and our streets,” testified Otto Shalk, a prosecuting attorney from Indiana. “With the increased amount of the impoverished having access to medical care, there is a greater likelihood that those who are impoverished are going to see the opportunity for turning a profit, albeit illegal, on the street.”

The thing is, the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s true that overdose rates are higher in the 31 states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and it’s true that opioid abuse is more common among poor Americans. But Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act took place in 2014—nearly twenty years after overdose rates started creeping up, and three years after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the crisis an epidemic. (Check out our timeline of the epidemic for more details.)  

Plus, today’s opioid epidemic is fueled by illicit fentanyl and heroin, which kill far more Americans than prescription opioids. There’s ample evidence to suggest that these illicit drug markets sprang up in the same places where opioids were overprescribed, and many of these states would later expand Medicaid. Today’s epidemic started with overzealous pharmaceutical marketing and liberal prescribing, not access to healthcare, noted Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, in his testimony. As he said, “Opioid overdoses have been increasing in people with all types of insurance and in people from all economic groups, from rich to poor.”

The irony is that Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act gave millions of Americans access to addiction treatment coverage—which researchers on the right and left agree is key to solving the drug crisis. (Brandi, a recovering drug user who attributes her progress to her newfound addiction treatment coverage, is one example.) But recent Republican legislation—like the repeal of the individual mandate under recently enacted tax plan, or the proposed Medicaid work requirements—could cripple that progress. As Keith Humphreys, a Stanford psychiatry professor and Obama policy advisor, told me last year, Obamacare was “designed to be very broad, but at the same time we knew that if there was anything that this would help a lot for, it’s addiction.”

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate