Natives worry thousands could lose healthcare without jobs

The Trump administration has sought to implement a work requirement for Medicaid since January, an unprecedented move advocates say threatens healthcare for many low-income individuals—including Native American communities in Minnesota.

For many affected by this policy shift, the initiative flies in the face of more than a century of promises from the United States to its Native populations.

“For Native people we were guaranteed two things, and that was access to education and access to healthcare,” said Rep. Peggy Flanagan, who is also a candidate in this year’s race for governor. “This attack on access to healthcare for Native people is an attack, really, on sovereignty itself.” 

Flanagan has since spoken out against President Trump’s push to include work requirements for Medicaid, which would effectively cut benefits to many members of Minnesota’s 11 Native tribes. 

According to the Department of Health, Native Americans make up more than one percent of the state population, but represent thousands who would lose access to basic care if the measure passes in Minnesota. 

“Native folks experience unemployment at three times the rate of other populations, so you can imagine that number is fairly staggering,” said Flanagan. 

Medicaid work requirements have already passed in Arkansas, Kentucky and Indiana. Americans for Prosperity, an organization funded largely by the Koch brothers, has backed the proposal in Minnesota.

In January, the group commended the Trump administration for announcing the initiative, which was billed as a way to “test incentives for able-bodied working age adults that receive Medicaid assistance.” 

“The reason this has never been allowed in over 50 years of Medicaid is because Medicaid is not a work program, Medicaid is a healthcare program,” said Patrick Ness of the This is Medicaid Coalition. 

According to Ness, who stands against the measure, the feedback from Minnesotans is resounding and clear that the measure is not from or for Minnesota. Already, Ness says, 125 state organizations oppose Medicaid work requirements. 

“That includes the hospital association, doctors and nurses, mental health providers, recovery therapists,” Ness said. “The list goes on and on of who’s lined up against this proposal.”

Native Americans wouldn’t be the only ones who will feel the significant impact of the proposal. Ness expects the measure could force people with chronic conditions to work and burden social service workers—especially since the proposal wouldn’t address issues like lack of transportation, stable housing and age discrimination. These issues, Ness said, are just a few of the many things that keep more than 117,000 Minnesotans out of a job. 

“Life is hard for people on Medicaid and this would make it much harder,” Ness added. 

In a statement, Governor Mark Dayton said he strongly opposes the proposal because it would deny healthcare to thousands of Minnesotans. 

Flanagan is, however, open to further discussion on Medicaid work requirements, so long as the discussions include a few considerations.

“A more beneficial plan would be to discuss job programs, and opportunities to partner with tribes. Those are conversations we’d be eager to have instead,” she said.