Surprise – you lost your Medicaid!

Published 2:50 pm Thursday, August 31, 2023

By Deborah Yetter

Kentucky Lantern

Some patients find out they’ve been dropped from Medicaid when they come in to pick up a prescription.

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Others, when they arrive for a doctor’s appointment at one of the Family Health Centers’ Louisville clinics.

And some are struggling to cope with paperwork or documentation required to prove eligibility for Medicaid under new rules that require such information for the first time in three years.

Ashley Shoemaker, director of outreach for the clinics, recalls the relief one man expressed when he was contacted as part of an effort to alert patients about the Medicaid changes.

“He said, ‘I’ve been trying to do this on my own and I don’t know where to start,’” Shoemaker said. “He’s eligible, he just didn’t know where to begin.”

Staff was able to help him complete his application.

But around 70,000 people in Kentucky have been terminated from the health plan for low income and disabled individuals through June, the latest numbers available from the state.

The majority lost coverage for  not responding to or not properly completing  paperwork.

Health advocates in Kentucky — as well as nationwide — are watching and working to ensure people who are eligible remain insured as states transition back to yearly recertification for Medicaid, a federal-state health plan for low-income adults and children.

The state began sending the first notices in May.

“For three years, people didn’t need to respond to notices they received because their coverage was going to continue,” said Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, which is closely monitoring the situation.

During the COVID pandemic that began in 2020, the federal government suspended the annual requirement that people prove they are eligible for the coverage which is based largely on income.

Kentucky’s $15 billion-a-year Medicaid program covers 1.6 million people including adults, children and individuals in nursing homes, with the federal government covering 70% to 80% of the costs.

With the recent decision to lift the federal public health emergency, the states must again begin requiring annual renewal by members.

And that’s proving difficult among people who aren’t used to the annual requirement, may not understand the process or don’t have access to technology required to complete online applications and upload documents, such as income verification, advocates said.

70,000 Kentuckians terminated

“It’s hard to know if people understand what they need to do and are taking those steps, Beauregard said.

Molly Lewis, CEO of the Kentucky Primary Care Association, said she’s worried that people who have benefited from expanded mental health and addiction treatment in recent years could suffer if they inadvertently lose Medicaid coverage.

“I am most concerned about all those who have benefited from behavioral health services,” said Lewis, who represents a network of clinics that see about one million patients a year.

Through June, 70,000 of the around 900,000 Kentucky adults covered by Medicaid have been dropped from the health plan, most losing coverage for “procedural reasons,” such as failing to respond to a renewal notice sent by the state.

Other states are posting similar numbers, with 75% of disenrollments nationwide due to procedural reasons, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan health policy organization which offers a Medicaid enrollment tracker on its website.

That doesn’t mean all Kentuckians who lose Medicaid lack health coverage.

Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which administers Medicaid, said Kentucky deliberately structured its 12-month recertification plan to first target those most likely to have obtained other health coverage. That includes individuals who have reached age 65 and qualify for Medicare, the government plan for older Americans, or who have obtained coverage through employment.

“We put them up front,” Friedlander said in an interview last month.

Advocates agree with the approach but still worry that too many people who are eligible are losing coverage for failing to receive or respond to notifications from the state. With only a few months of data available, it’s hard to tell, said Beauregard.

“At this point, it’s too soon to know how many people are walking around uninsured and either don’t know it or think they are not eligible,” she said.

Preliminary numbers show as many as 40% of those losing Medicaid coverage may have obtained other health insurance. And about 3,000 people who lost coverage have been reinstated once they provided applications or documentation, such as proof of income or address, Friedlander said.

Meanwhile, about half of those targeted each month for Medicaid recertification don’t have to do anything at all — they are deemed eligible through “passive” renewal in which the state is able to validate information such as income, household size or other details by checking state and federal databases.

And those whose income has increased, making them no longer eligible for Medicaid, may be eligible for low-cost, federally-subsidized private plans through kynect, Kentucky’s online health insurance exchange, said Medicaid Commissioner Lisa Lee.

“There really is something for everyone,” Lee said.

Stakes high for kids

So far, Kentucky has avoided cutting children from Medicaid. Advocates have sounded sound the alarm about other states where high numbers of children are losing coverage — most often for procedural reasons.

The tens of thousands of children losing coverage in some states prompted one group that monitors Medicaid to suggest states suspend terminating kids to determine what’s going wrong.

In Idaho, for example, around 23,000 children have been removed for failing to return recertification forms, according to the Idaho Capital Sun. Arkansas also has moved aggressively to cut people, including children, from Medicaid.

“The stakes are high,” said a blog post on the Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute Center for Children and Families. “Gaps in coverage are problems for anyone — but especially for children, who, while not expensive, are regular users (or should be) of health care.”

Children and adults in rural states including Kentucky are especially dependent on Medicaid for health care, the blog reported.

Nationwide, seven rural counties have half or more of their adults covered by Medicaid and six of those counties are in Kentucky, it said.

Around 600,000 Kentucky children have health coverage through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, a Medicaid program for children whose parents earn too much to qualify but are still considered low income.

That’s more than half the state’s children.

They will be among the last to be recertified under the 12-month process Kentucky began in May, Friedlander said.

Health care is expensive

Meanwhile, state officials, advocacy groups, community clinics and others are working to alert Medicaid patients to the changes through notices, fliers, mail, phone calls, text messages and other means.

State officials set up an exhibit at the Kentucky State Fair that runs through Aug. 27 to inform the public about changes. It includes private booths where state workers can help people apply for or renew coverage.

Advocates are especially concerned about those who might unknowingly lose coverage by not receiving or responding to a notice.

“It is important that individuals have insurance coverage because health care is expensive,” Lewis said. “A medical bill for something that’s not covered can be really debilitating.”

It could also affect community clinics that serve a high percentage of Medicaid patients and operate on tight budgets.

“It definitely can affect us from the bottom-line standpoint,” said Kirstie Matzek, CEO of the Shawnee Christian HealthCare Center, a federally authorized community health service in Louisville.

Matzek said her clinic staff has been attending events such as festivals and church picnics to hand out information. Staff also has been notifying patients about the Medicaid changes, she said.

“I know there’s a level of responsibility for the patient,” Matzek said. “But I think we have a responsibility as well.”