Arkansas Medicaid recipients petition DHS for better care, accessibility
DHS Secretary Kristi Putnam said she plans to meet with rally organizers to discuss potential Medicaid improvements
From left: Medicaid recipients John Johnson, Ruthie Hadley, Cassandra Reed and Crystal Alexander-Berry protest in front of the Arkansas Department of Human Services building Monday. Protesters delivered letters to DHS saying they are frustrated with the program's limited coverage and cumbersome enrollment process, among other things. (Photo by Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
Al Allen’s younger brother faced more than physical struggles after narrowly surviving being hit by a car on the interstate, she said.
Allen’s brother was 18 and uninsured at the time of the accident, and he received treatment at the nearest neurotrauma care center in Springfield, Missouri. Almost two years later, he is able to move but is not confident in his ability to speak because he could not get insurance coverage for multiple therapies in a timely manner, Allen said.
“The reason he’s not standing with me today is because Medicaid is playing hot potato with responsibility for who is going to pay for his occupational and speech therapy,” Allen said.
Allen was one of several people who voiced frustration with Medicaid accessibility in Arkansas on Monday morning in front of the Department of Human Services’ headquarters in downtown Little Rock. The small crowd held up signs and chanted “Fair health care” and “Coverage now.”
Arkansas Community Organizations, an advocacy group that also focuses on tenants’ rights, organized the rally. The group surveyed 300 Medicaid recipients and released a report in 2022 based on the results.
“Many people are concerned that the application process is too cumbersome and the renewal process too slow,” Arkansas Community Organizations said in a news release.
The rally-goers delivered DHS a pile of letters from Medicaid recipients stating what changes the program could make to better meet their health needs.
Some said they want Medicaid to provide for dental, vision, transportation and mental health services.
Cassandra Reed said Medicaid does not currently cover all the services, including medication, that treat her 22-year-old son’s special needs. She also said she has struggled to pay medical bills after a three-month hospital stay, and she has reached out to DHS for help but felt like “nobody wants to listen.”
“What’s the purpose of paying in for this if we can’t use it to get the stuff that we need?” Reed said.
Other letters said they have had trouble navigating the state’s Medicaid website and reaching people on the phone who could answer questions about the program.
Joyce Means said she waited an hour at a DHS office to receive a printed copy of a document she needed.
“If there’s a line or a window just to serve people that are there for printouts, you should be able to go in and not wait an hour … and it’s an in-and-out process,” Means said.
Four DHS staff attended the rally: communications chief Gavin Lesnick, deputy communications chief Keith Metz, assistant director of field operations Robert Williams and deputy chief of community engagement Jason Pederson.
DHS Secretary Kristi Putnam, who was appointed into her position in January, said in an emailed statement that she plans to meet with Arkansas Community Organizations to build a working relationship and discuss ways to improve Medicaid.
“The DHS team is reviewing the letters delivered to our Central Office this morning, and is committed to making Medicaid as effective and efficient as possible to ensure all eligible beneficiaries get the services they need,” Putnam said.
Medicaid is a joint federal and state health care program for people with disabilities and those who meet certain income thresholds. The program covers about 90 million Americans.
DHS announced last year that hundreds of thousands of Arkansas Medicaid clients might no longer be eligible for the program, but their coverage was extended through a provision written into Congress’ first COVID-19 relief law in 2020.
As of January, 418,855 clients will have their eligibility reviewed when the continuous enrollment provision expires in the spring.
The department announced in November that all Medicaid clients need to be sure their contact information is up to date in the state’s system, either online, over the phone or at the DHS office in each county.
Clients can update their contact information by calling the Update Arkansas hotline at 1-844-872-2660 or visiting DHS’ benefits site.
The 2020 coverage extension will end May 11 with the conclusion of the public health emergency (PHE) declared at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Joe Biden announced Jan. 30. And Congress permitted states to begin removing ineligible residents in April.
Billy Cook told reporters he knows he will lose Medicaid coverage in the eligibility review and hopes to enroll in his employer’s insurance program as soon as possible.
Cook said he believes Medicaid should notify clients when their providers’ coverage options change. His coverage changed in mid-2020, and he was unaware until he tried to get tested for COVID-19 and found out his health care provider no longer served Medicaid clients, he said.
“I was given the option of paying $150 for a rapid COVID test or going home, [and] I had to choose to go home,” Cook said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.