FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Dental and vision care benefits will be restored for hundreds of thousands of Medicaid recipients in a sudden reversal by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's administration following an outcry over the recent cuts.
The coverage had been abruptly cut at the start of July after a federal judge rejected the Republican governor's plan to overhaul Kentucky's Medicaid program. The cuts triggered stinging criticism from Democrats and public health advocates.
The sudden about-face was announced late Thursday by the state's Cabinet for Health and Family Services and was welcomed by the administration's critics.
"This was poor policy from the very beginning," said Sheila Schuster, a longtime Kentucky advocate for the disabled and people without health coverage.
The judge's ruling also marked a setback for President Donald Trump's administration, which has encouraged states to impose work requirements and other changes on Medicaid — the joint state and federal health insurance program for poor and disabled people. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg's recent ruling blocks those requirements for now in Kentucky.
The cuts in dental and vision benefits had affected nearly 400,000 Kentuckians. Public health advocates said the action caused widespread disruptions in health services.
"This is not just an inconvenience or a delay, this has absolutely caused pain and suffering for people," Schuster said Thursday.
While public health advocates had denounced all the cuts, their harshest criticism was aimed at cuts in dental services. They noted that dental abscesses and infection can be life-threatening, and said untreated dental pain can lead to addiction to painkillers, worsening the state's drug addiction woes.
The state's Cabinet for Health and Family Services said Thursday the dental and vision coverage is being restored to "mitigate the consequences" of the judge's ruling. The state also reinstated non-emergency transportation services for those recipients.
The reinstatement of benefits will be retroactive to the first of July, state officials said.
Bevin's administration has said its Medicaid overhaul had offered "a sustainable path" to provide the dental and vision benefits, but noted the judge's ruling meant there was "no longer a viable method" to provide the services.
The federal health care law championed by former President Barack Obama gave states the option of expanding Medicaid coverage to able-bodied adults. Kentucky, under former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, was among states that did so, and nearly 500,000 Kentuckians received Medicaid coverage as a result.
But Bevin, elected in 2015, said the program was too expensive to continue. He sought permission to impose new rules, including charging monthly premiums and requiring at least 80 hours of "community engagement" per month, which could include working, volunteering or going to school.
His administration has said Kentucky faces a $300 million shortfall in Medicaid over the next two years, and the new rules would have helped the state save money.
But a leading Democrat in Kentucky's legislature, House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, said the benefit cuts were a "cruel action" that caused "an immediate hardship" for Medicaid recipients and "needless headaches" for many health care providers.
"I'm hopeful that our citizens will not be faced with the devastation of losing these benefits again," Adkins said in a statement Thursday.
But advocates warned that the reversal could be short lived, noting that federal officials will open a new comment period on proposed changes to the Medicaid program in Kentucky.
Following the judge's ruling, state officials had hoped for quick federal action that they said would have triggered a program that Medicaid recipients could access to pay for routine vision and dental services. The cabinet said Thursday the benefits were reinstated to "avoid a prolonged coverage gap" while the program is being reviewed.
"Unfortunately, changing benefits and coverage is not as easy as flipping a single switch," the cabinet said in its statement.