Medicaid error fixed ahead of scheduled removal of ineligible clients, per Arkansas DHS

Arkansas Medicaid recipients have expressed frustration in recent months about how the program is run

By: - April 24, 2023 5:22 pm

Arkansas Department of Human Services communications chief Gavin Lesnick talks to a group of Medicaid recipients in late March outside DHS headquarters in downtown Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Several Arkansas Medicaid recipients were briefly disenrolled from the health insurance program last week due to an error at the state Department of Human Services, two DHS spokespeople said Monday.

“Coverage has been restored for most of these beneficiaries, though there are some isolated cases that are being fixed today,” communications chief Gavin Lesnick said in a statement.

The department did not know exactly how many people were accidentally disenrolled or whether they are likely to be officially disenrolled soon as part of an ongoing Medicaid eligibility review, deputy communications chief Keith Metz said in a follow-up email.

The review covers about 420,000 Medicaid enrollees who had their coverage extended for three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The nationwide public health emergency (PHE) enacted at the start of the pandemic in 2020 will end May 11, and the federal government allowed states to begin removing ineligible residents April 1.

Many other states have one-year grace periods that started April 1, allowing Medicaid enrollees to confirm during that time whether they are still eligible for coverage, but a 2021 Arkansas law gives DHS only six months to complete its eligibility review.

Arkansas Medicaid recipients asked DHS in March for a one-year grace period, to no avail. The advocacy group Arkansas Community Organizations has repeatedly petitioned the department for broader health care coverage from Medicaid, a less cumbersome application process and better customer service.

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. Medicaid clients can renew their Medicaid enrollment online or via regular mail in order to determine whether they are still eligible for coverage.

However, the letters that some Medicaid clients have received contain too much jargon to help them know what to do, said Neil Sealy, an organizer with Arkansas Community Organizations.

Sealy said Monday that he was aware of last week’s disenrollment error but saw it as one of many problems with the way the social services agency administers Medicaid. The county DHS offices have been “no help,” he said.

“The system’s always been bad, I have to say, but not this [bad],” Sealy said. “The renewal and application stuff is all remote.”

Communication efforts

DHS conducted both a digital and in-person outreach campaign with the goal of informing Medicaid recipients about the upcoming review. Additionally, department officials said in November that health care providers had received lists of their clients who were at risk of losing coverage under certain programs because they shared some of the outreach responsibility with DHS.

Lesnick previously told the Arkansas Advocate that the first round of extended Medicaid recipients who no longer qualify for the program will be disenrolled at the end of April. He added Monday that DHS will release the number of disenrolled clients in early May.

When asked if last week’s error was a result of the eligibility review, Metz said DHS is “continuously monitoring our systems and processes to make sure they handle re-determinations as intended.”

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“If any further issues arise, we will work diligently to correct them,” he said.

DHS Secretary Kristi Putnam met with representatives from Arkansas Community Organizations in February to discuss Medicaid clients’ needs. Both the organizers and DHS officials said they hoped to continue dialogue.

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, but Putnam and Sanders announced in February that Arkansas is seeking permission from the federal government to enact one. Sanders said while campaigning in 2022 that she hoped to put such a requirement in place.

Putnam and Sanders’ proposal would 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 instead of being removed from Medicaid entirely.

Arkansas Community Organizations has expressed opposition to the proposal.

“If we can’t be healthy, we can’t work,” organizer Valencia White said in March.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.