Could Florida’s Refusal to Expand Medicaid Come Back to Bite With Zika?

Zika is spreading across Florida. Of the nearly 2,000 cases reported nationwide, Florida is host to 328 of them — the most of any state. Six Americans have acquired Zika locally, all of them in Florida.

What’s Florida’s best chance of beating the virus? Medicaid expansion, the program that has been repeatedly blocked by Florida’s House of Representatives and Gov. Rick Scott.

Medicaid expansion, supported by 6 in 10 Florida voters, would reduce the state’s uninsured population by 877,000 people, giving nearly a million would-be carriers access to diagnostic tests and prenatal care.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the outbreak a “public-health emergency of international concern,” warning women to avoid traveling to highly affected areas. So why is Florida allowing the infection to spread here at home? Why isn’t it taking a preventive step that has been offered to it free of charge by the federal government?

What’s Behind Zika’s Spread?

Seeing how Medicaid expansion could mitigate Zika’s “explosive” spread first means understanding the three factors fueling it.

  • First, the test’s $120 pre-insurance price means uninsured Floridians aren’t getting checked. Considering that sexual contact transmits the disease, thousands of men and women could be unknowingly spreading the virus.
  • Second, the life span of mosquitoes is heavily influenced by weather. Humidity and record-breaking temperatures are creating an ideal climate for the pathogen to thrive.
  • Third, the mosquitoes carrying the virus are putting up a fight. Typically deterred by insecticide, Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes — those most likely to carry the virus — have been baffling the CDC. Standing water removal and insect repellant alone haven’t stopped Zika’s spread.

How Medicaid Expansion Can Curb Zika in Florida

Scott insists recent cuts to Florida’s health infrastructure haven’t propelled the disease’s spread. His claim, however, doesn’t stand up to data that show the virus isn’t slowing down.

The best defense Florida has against further infection may be an expansion of Florida’s Medicaid eligibility limits. Expansion would increase funding for healthcare, provide insurance for low-income residents, and protect Florida’s mothers-to-be.

Medicaid could limit Zika’s spread in three essential ways:

  1. Medicaid functions as a preventive safety net.
    Medicaid currently covers half of U.S. pregnancies, leading physicians at the CDC Foundation to plead for expansion. Without its increased coverage, women are being denied preventive measures like contraception and medical-grade repellent. Children born with birth defects will face steep medical costs throughout their lives. Flint, Michigan, faced its own crisis with lead exposure earlier this year, and expanded Medicaid eligibility was an important preventive force that reduced health risks.
  2. Medicaid access means early detection.
    Other than prevention, early detection is the best defense against Zika’s spread. Medicaid covers diagnostic services including scans, ultrasounds, blood tests, and genetic testing. Early screenings can help reduce the rate of fetal birth defects by identifying the disease before pregnancy.
  3. Medicaid makes ongoing care and treatment accessible.
    While there are no drugs currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating Zika virus, it’s essential that infected individuals can see a doctor.
    Beyond treating symptoms, physicians can combat complications of the disease and provide specialized care to children born with Zika-related birth defects. Unfortunately, even primary care visits without health insurance cost far more than most uninsured can afford.

Zika isn’t a pandemic yet, but it has the potential to become one. By embracing expansion, Florida can ensure that doesn’t happen. With Floridians’ health at risk, it’s time to put aside personal beliefs and reap the benefits of Medicaid expansion.