Ron Johnson pushes false claim that Medicaid expansion increased opioid abuse

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The Wisconsin GOP senator also spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines in a recent speech.

In a speech earlier this month, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) falsely claimed that expanding the number of Americans who qualify for Medicaid led to an increase in opioid use.

Johnson also doubled down on false claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and suggested they aren't as effective as so-called "natural immunity."

His remarks came during a Nov. 5 forum hosted by the Sheboygan Chamber of Commerce. The group posted a video of Johnson's comments but later took it down.

In his speech, Johnson attacked Medicaid — the federal health insurance program meant to help low-income Americans get health care. The program was expanded under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010.

"There are so many different entitlement programs that pay people not to work," Johnson said in the speech. "One of them was Medicaid expansion, which allowed, you know, gave access to some of these working-age men, access to opioids for free, for three bucks, and then [they] sell them on the open market."

But multiple studies have found that Medicaid expansion was associated with a decrease in opioid-involved hospitalizations and deaths, not an increase as Johnson claimed.

In a January 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open, researchers found that "adoption of Medicaid expansion was associated with a 6% lower rate of total opioid overdose deaths compared with the rate in non-expansion states."

The researchers concluded that Medicaid expansion could serve as a "critical component of state efforts to address the continuing opioid overdose epidemic."

A separate study from March 2020 published by JAMA Internal Medicine also found evidence that Medicaid expansion was associated with a reduction in opioid use. Researchers analyzed data from 46 states and the District of Columbia and found that Medicaid expansion was associated with a 9.7% reduction in the rate of opioid-related inpatient hospitalizations.

"This study provides evidence suggesting that Medicaid expansion may be financially beneficial to safety-net hospitals that previously had to absorb opioid-related admissions as uncompensated care and can now seek reimbursement from Medicaid," the study's authors wrote.

Between April 2020 and April 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. That data showed more Americans died from using opioids — a category that includes synthetic varieties like fentanyl — than from all other drugs combined.

"As we continue to make strides to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country," President Joe Biden said in a statement about the overdose numbers on Wednesday.

This isn't the first time Johnson has made baseless claims about a supposed link between Medicaid and opioid use. In 2018, while serving as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Johnson released a report titled "Drugs for Dollars: How Medicaid Helps Fuel the Opioid Epidemic."

Public health experts pushed back against the report's claims at a 2018 hearing of the committee.

"Opioid overdoses have been increasing in people with all types of insurance and in people from all economic groups, from rich to poor," Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, told the committee at the time.

"Medicaid expansion is not responsible for the very sharp increase we have seen in opioid overdose deaths over the past few years," Kolodny added. "The reason we are seeing a sharp increase in opioid overdose deaths, as you know, is because of fentanyl."

When asked for evidence linking Medicaid expansion to the rise in opioid use, a spokesperson for Johnson's office pointed the American Independent Foundation to Johnson's report and his opening remarks at the 2018 hearing. The spokesperson did not address the studies showing that Medicaid lowered opioid hospitalizations and deaths.

Johnson, who is up for reelection in 2022, has thus far refused to say whether he will run for another term. Asked by an attendee at the Chamber of Commerce forum about his plans, Johnson responded, "I honestly have not made that decision," but added his announcement "will not be in the distant future."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.