2018-02-10 15:31:02
Kentucky Rushes to Remake Medicaid as Other States Prepare to Follow

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With approval from the Trump administration fresh in hand, Kentucky is rushing to roll out its first-in-the-nation plan to require many Medicaid recipients to work, volunteer or train for a job — even as critics mount a legal challenge to stop it on the grounds that it violates the basic tenets of the program.

At least eight other Republican-led states are hoping to follow — a ninth, Indiana, has already won permission to do so — and some want to go even further by imposing time limits on coverage.

Such restrictions are central to Republican efforts to profoundly change Medicaid, the safety net program that has provided free health insurance to tens of millions of low-income Americans for more than 50 years. The ballooning deficits created by the budget deal that President Trump signed into law Friday and the recent tax bill are likely to add urgency to the party’s attempts to wring savings from entitlement programs.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, said Thursday that addressing entitlement spending is “what you need to do to fully deal with this debt crisis,” though Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader from Kentucky, said he has ruled out doing so this year.

As Kentucky pushes forward, many who work with the poor are worried that the thicket of new documentation requirements in Medicaid will be daunting for low-income people, who may have little education and struggle with transportation, paying for cellphone minutes and getting access to the internet. Not only that, they note, but the new rules will add the type of administrative costs and governmental burdens that Republicans tend to revile.

On a recent rainy Monday, Bill Wagner, who runs primary care clinics in poor neighborhoods here, listened tensely as a state health official explained how the state would enforce the complex and contentious new rules.

The 20 hours a week of work, job training or volunteering? Ten regional work force boards will monitor who complies, said the official, Kristi Putnam.

The monthly premiums of $1 to $15 that many will now owe? The managed care companies that contract with the state will collect them.

The “rewards dollars” that many will need to earn to get their teeth cleaned or their vision checked? They’ll be tracked through a new online platform, where Medicaid recipients will also be expected to upload their work, volunteer or training hours.

“I know it sounds a little bit complicated,” Ms. Putnam conceded as the group meeting with her, which has overseen efforts to enroll Louisville residents in health insurance in the Obamacare era, jotted notes. Someone heaved a sigh.

After four years of signing up thousands of people for coverage under the health law’s expansion of the Medicaid program, Mr. Wagner told the room, “We’re shifting our focus from helping people gain coverage to helping people keep it.”

The rationale of Gov. Matt Bevin and other supporters is that Medicaid was created for the most vulnerable citizens — those who aren’t only poor, but pregnant, elderly, children or disabled — and that for everyone else, working or otherwise engaging in their community will provide dignity and better health. About 500,000 Kentuckians have joined the Medicaid rolls under the Obamacare expansion, and the state estimates some 350,000 will be subject to the new work rules.

While the work requirement is unprecedented in the history of Medicaid, Mr. Wagner and others say they’re just as concerned about other new rules that will be confusing and hard to follow. For example, many adults who don’t pay their small premiums can be locked out of Medicaid for six months, unless they complete a financial or health literacy course. Others will lose access to dental and vision care.

Critics of the plan point to Indiana, which dropped about 25,000 adults from its Medicaid program from 2015 through 2017 for failing to pay premiums there. About half found other coverage, according to state surveys, typically through a job.

Mark Lee Coleman, a diabetic who was visiting a busy clinic run by Family Health Centers, the nonprofit network that Mr. Wagner heads, one recent morning, had heard next to nothing about the new rules. He needed refills on his medications; his blood sugar level had climbed so high without them that he risked falling into a diabetic coma. But first Mr. Coleman needed help figuring out why his Medicaid coverage had been canceled late last year, even before the new rules kicked in.

A counselor at the clinic called the state Medicaid office and found out Mr. Coleman, 49, had forgotten to report a change in income last July, when he switched from a higher-paying job at an Amazon warehouse to a less physically demanding job as a parts driver for Pep Boys, the automotive chain. After she helped him email a pay stub to the office, his coverage was set to be reinstated within a few days.

Once Kentucky’s new rules take effect this spring and summer, Mr. Coleman will also have to report a monthly tally of his work hours to keep his coverage.

He now works 20 hours a week, but he has neuropathy, a numbness and tingling in his hands and feet, and sometimes has trouble walking. Should he cut back his hours, he’d either have to try to get classified as “medically frail,” which would exempt him from the work rule, or lose his coverage.

He hasn’t thought all that through yet. In concept, though, he supports work requirements — as do most voters, polls have found.

“That’s not bad, to tell you the truth,” he said. “If you’re working, that’s good for your health.”

As he spoke, he gulped water from a bottle he kept refilling — his extreme thirst a sign of his health crisis. Kara Peers, a case worker at Family Health Centers, tried to gauge what other challenges he and his wife and four children might be facing that could interfere with his ability to manage his disease.

“What about food, sir?” she asked.

“Ah, we’re kind of low,” he replied.

“Utilities — are you able to pay the bill?”

“It can be tough.”

He left with a month’s worth of medications — three for diabetes, one for high blood pressure, paid for by the clinic — and the reassurance that his Medicaid would soon be reinstated. Melissa Mather, the communications director at Family Health Centers, said she worried that patients like him, who already stumble over Medicaid’s paperwork requirements, will be more lost under the new rules. She and Mr. Wagner are also worried about their homeless patients, who will be subject to the rules unless they meet the federal definition of “chronically homeless” and get an exemption.

“This is a very, very big concern from my perspective — talking about the complexity of these changes when a lot of the folks we deal with have lives that are in chaos already,” she said.

For now, there are more questions than answers, as state workers like Ms. Putnam hustle to iron out all the details, let alone explain them. Like Mr. Carter, Sarah and Matt Burress got Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act after going uninsured for years. The coverage may have saved Mr. Burress’s eyesight — though only 29, he was diagnosed with advanced glaucoma when he went for a routine eye check shortly after becoming insured in 2015.

Now he’s worried about keeping his coverage because he runs his own small lawn care business, working irregular hours with a hiatus that lasts all winter.

“We haven’t heard how it will work for seasonal self-employed workers,” said Ms. Burress, who works part time as an office manager. “Do his clients have to say, ‘Yeah, he mowed my grass this week?’ Part of it feels like they’re trying to catch you, by burying people in paperwork and making it a huge inconvenience.”

She added that she and her husband plan to remain on Medicaid only until his business starts turning a profit. “This was never meant to be our permanent fix,” she said, not the “dead-end entitlement trap” that Mr. Bevin rails against.

Most people on Medicaid do work, research has found; Those who don’t often are disabled, even though they may not qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance. Sheila Penney, 54, has cycled in and out of jobs for years with chronic depression and anxiety that started when she lost her father at 16. She has worked as a package handler, a boat reservations manager and even a health insurance enrollment counselor, helping patients at Family Health Centers sign up for Medicaid back in 2014.

But she has not worked at all for the last two years, focusing instead on getting her mental health problems under control and relying on her mother to pay her rent. Now she’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last month to stop Kentucky’s new requirements from taking effect. With Medicaid, she is able to go weekly to a therapist and monthly to a psychiatric nurse practitioner who adjusts her medication, she said.

“I’m wanting to go back to work, but if I was told, ‘You have to go back,’ I do think that would step up my anxiety,” Ms. Penney said. “Volunteering would be less pressure, but you would still want to be consistent and reliable.”

Caring full time for a child or other family member can also count toward the work requirement, as can going to school full time, though neither will apply to Ms. Penney.

She expects she will find a way to pay the new premiums she’ll owe under the plan — $4 a month — but predicts it will mean going without other necessities at times. (She is poor enough under the new rules that if she fails to pay them, she will lose access to dental and vision coverage but not be dropped from coverage altogether.)

“I was at the store yesterday, looking in my wallet and going, ‘Do I have enough money for dog food?” she said. “The thought of taking on even one more expense feels overwhelming.”

For Kimberly Dandridge, who overcame breast cancer and addiction to crack cocaine earlier in her life, Medicaid is a bridge while she works toward a job that comes with benefits. Ms. Dandridge, 53, works 30 hours a week as an administrative assistant, and said she would have no trouble meeting the premium and work requirements — but could relate to those who might.

“I remember there was a time I was just down, in the gutter, so low and broken,” she said. “If people like that need medical attention, just let them get it.”