Amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the Oregon Health Authority announced some good news today: It has obtained federal authority to expand enrollment in the Oregon Health Plan, which provides Medicaid services to Oregonians with low incomes.

The waiver from the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services allows Oregon to take several steps: It can waive income verification for new enrollees; ensure that all current OHP members keep their coverage during the pandemic; and promise members that the money they may get from federal aid and state unemployment benefits will not disqualify them from Medicaid coverage.

The waiver is a big benefit for Oregonians who are currently uninsured, because it will allow them to access the health care system. It is also a benefit to the state and to Oregon hospital systems, which would otherwise have to cover the cost of care for uninsured patients. Under Medicaid, the federal government picks up the vast majority of costs and the state chips in the balance.

About 26 percent of Oregonians currently receive Medicaid benefits through the Oregon Health Plan. A survey last September found that about 6 percent of Oregonians have no health insurance at all.

People who are homeless—and who are often uninsured—are expected to be particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus among those who could benefit from the expansion. Hospitalization for the disease is extremely expensive because it often involves time in an intensive care bed, the use of a ventilator, and an extended stay.

"The COVID-19 pandemic requires us to act quickly to support the needs of our communities," said Patrick Allen, director of OHA, in a statement.

"This added flexibility in our Medicaid program is going to allow us to more quickly get people access to health care and expand our health system to meet the challenges of this public health emergency."