LINCOLN, Neb. -- The director of Nebraska’s Medicaid program is stepping down in the middle of the state’s effort to expand coverage under the federal health care law — an expansion that Republican governors and many state lawmakers thwarted until voters approved it in 2018.
Matthew Van Patton, the director of the Medicaid and Long-Term Care program, will leave his job effective Feb. 7, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Monday.
Van Patton served in the job for almost two years and was a key leader in the effort to expand coverage for low-income residents. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who strongly opposed measures to expand Medicaid in the Legislature but promised to follow the wishes of voters after they approved it via a statewide ballot measure.
Van Patton’s departure shouldn’t affect the state’s efforts to expand Medicaid, said Khalilah LeGrand, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
LeGrand said officials are “moving forward with our implementation of Medicaid expansion and remain on target” to have it ready for the public by Oct. 1.
“Director Van Patton leaves the department and Medicaid team well-positioned to stay the course,” LeGrand said.
Prominent supporters of expanding Medicaid have criticized state officials for taking too long and making the program needlessly complex.
The self-imposed Oct. 1 deadline is nearly two years after voters approved the ballot measure for an estimated 94,000 low-income residents.
Under Van Patton, department officials also decided to implement a two-tiered program: a “basic” plan available to all newly qualified recipients and a “premium” plan only available to people who are working, in school, volunteering or caring for a relative. The premium plan would cover dental and vision care, and over-the-counter drugs.
A state lawmaker who helped lead the Medicaid expansion ballot campaign introduced legislation last week that would prohibit the department from creating those different tiers, but the measure’s prospects are unclear.
“The Department of Health and Human Services should be providing health care benefits to Nebraskans, not taking them away,” Sen. Adam Morfeld, of Lincoln, said last week.
Van Patton is leaving the department to return to work in the private sector, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Before he took the state job, Van Patton was the head of a health care technology startup.
“I have enjoyed my time serving in this capacity,” Van Patton said in a statement. “I thank the governor for the opportunity to have had this tour of duty in public service. I am incredibly proud of the work the Medicaid team has done over the last two years.
In a statement, Ricketts praised Van Patton for his work at the agency.
“Director Van Patton has done an outstanding job in leading the Division of Medicaid and Long-Term Care,” Ricketts said. “His devotion to helping people live better lives is evident in the legacy he leaves behind, including having laid the foundation for providing more customer-focused, efficient and effective services for Nebraskans in need.”
As director, Van Patton oversaw the Nebraska Medicaid program, home and community services for the elderly and people with disabilities and the state unit on aging.
Jeremy Brunssen, a deputy director within the division, will serve as interim director of the agency until a long-term replacement is found.