Arkansas Medicaid recipients seek DHS response to feedback, more time to confirm eligibility
DHS is doing “due diligence” to respond to people’s concerns, communications chief Gavin Lesnick says
Valencia White, right, talks about her concerns about Medicaid during an event Friday in Little Rock. A group called Make Medicaid Better gathered in front of the Department of Human Services offices in downtown Little Rock Friday, March 24, 2023, to seek a response from the department about changes to Medicaid the group had suggested in an earlier meeting. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Medicaid recipients who are concerned about losing coverage soon did not let Friday’s pouring rain stop them from gathering in front of the Department of Human Services’ headquarters in downtown Little Rock.
Three attendees carried umbrellas with the message “Don’t leave us waiting in the rain” painted on them. The small crowd chanted “What do we need? Health care! When do we need it? Now!” in a call and response.
The rally was a follow-up to a Feb. 6 demonstration petitioning DHS for broader health care coverage from Medicaid, a less cumbersome application process and better customer service from the department. The rally-goers delivered a pile of letters from Medicaid recipients stating what changes the program could make to better meet their health needs.
DHS Secretary Kristi Putnam met with representatives from Arkansas Community Organizations later in February, which organized both rallies, to discuss their needs.
“Our hope is that we finally get the answers that we need instead of getting ignored,” Jasmine James, a single mother of two, said Friday. “Arkansans’ lives are very much important and I will fight for them until something is done.”
The protesters delivered another letter to Putnam on Friday requesting a quick delivery of the written response she promised them.
“I know she’s busy — I get it, I understand that — but we need something,” rally co-organizer Valencia White said. “I want to continue our talks, just to be in sync with each other.”
She said the ultimate goal is “to help us help [DHS] to help us” get the care they need.
Some of the most important needs among Arkansas Medicaid recipients are coverage for dental, vision and mental health services: care for “the whole person,” White said.
DHS communications chief Gavin Lesnick arrived during the rally and said he would have been there from the start if he had known about it in advance.
He said DHS will have “continuing dialogue” with Arkansas Community Organizations and is still ironing out responses to the roughly “two dozen bullet points” the petitioners brought Putnam, Lesnick and DHS chief of staff Mark White at their February meeting.
“We want to make sure we don’t give you responses that don’t address what you need, so we are doing our due diligence, and I expect it will be in the near future,” Lesnick told the crowd. “I can’t tell you it will be today or Monday, but we will be in touch very soon.”
The protesters are also seeking a one-year grace period to confirm whether they can remain on Medicaid after the end of the public health emergency (PHE) declared at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.
The PHE will end May 11, and Congress has allowed states to begin removing ineligible residents April 1. The grace period begins then. Several other states have one-year grace periods, but a 2021 state law gives the Department of Human Services only six months to complete its eligibility review.
Joyce Means told the Arkansas Advocate that losing Medicaid coverage would “bring some unfavorable changes” for her.
“We need this to go well and hopefully get more time … if they would just give us another six months, because there will be some people that fall through the cracks,” Means said.
As of February, 451,864 clients will have their eligibility reviewed, Lesnick said.
DHS 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.
Lesnick encouraged Friday’s protesters to renew their Medicaid enrollment online or via snail mail in order to determine whether they are still eligible for coverage.
He said he would pass along the protesters’ letter to Putnam, who was not in the DHS downtown building Friday.
“Quality of life”
Putnam was appointed to her position in January by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and previously worked for Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services from 2016 to 2019. She was one of the strongest proponents of Kentucky’s proposed Medicaid work requirement, which was struck down in 2019 by a federal judge alongside a similar Arkansas proposal that cut 18,000 people from Medicaid coverage.
Arkansas’ current Medicaid expansion program, ARHOME, does not have a work requirement.
Putnam and Sanders announced in February that Arkansas is seeking permission from the federal government to require adult Medicaid recipients to work, volunteer, go to school or receive workforce training in order to be covered by a qualified health plan under ARHOME. Those who do not meet the work requirement would still receive fee-for-service Medicaid coverage.
The proposed work requirement should incentivize Arkansans to seek the more robust benefits and “additional social supports” of a qualified health plan, Putnam said in February.
Arkansas Community Organizations expressed opposition to the proposal at the time. Friday’s protesters repeated the sentiment.
“If we can’t be healthy, we can’t work,” White said.
Later in February, Sanders signed a law requiring able-bodied adults to work or volunteer part-time to receive federal housing assistance, with exemptions for people with disabilities, parents of children under 5 years old and participants in drug and alcohol treatment programs.
The law passed the Legislature along party lines in both the House and Senate.
Legislators say Arkansans’ “quality of life” matters but do not do enough to make it better, protester Toney Orr said Friday. He said the possibility of losing health coverage is a “direct assault” on children, elderly Arkansans and those who live in poverty.
“We want some answers, not just from Director Putnam,” Orr said. “We also want answers from our legislators… We’re asking for answers from the people who are making these decisions, because every day, if you look at the quality of life for Arkansans, it’s getting lower and lower and lower.”
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