Protesters march from Woodlane Street to the Arkansas Capitol on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, to deliver a letter to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office detailing the difficulties they have had with the state’s Medicaid program. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
A group of Arkansans on Tuesday petitioned state and federal officials to intervene in the state’s administration of Medicaid, which they have repeatedly said needs improvement.
Arkansas Community Organizations held the latest of several protests this year airing Medicaid recipients’ complaints, including difficulties ensuring that the state Department of Human Services has accurately recorded or updated people’s income and contact information.
The organizers wrote a letter to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, asking its division that administers Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to work with Arkansas officials on improving the state’s administration of benefits.
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, including more than 900,000 Arkansans.
The letter to CMS lists changes to Medicaid that recipients have repeatedly said would make services more accessible to them and others. Examples include using plain language in written notices that DHS sends to Medicaid clients and staffing DHS’ county offices with employees who fully understand the rules and criteria of Medicaid’s many programs.
The protesters met outside the Victory Building across the street from the state Capitol building, carrying signs that said “Educate your employees” and “Try harder to reach everyone,” among other things.
Rally co-organizer Joyce Means said she is eligible for Medicaid coverage under the federal Pickle Amendment of 1977. The amendment created a class of Medicaid eligibility for people who receive Social Security benefits but exceed the income limit for Supplemental Security Income, which is aimed at people with disabilities and low-income older adults.
“Tell me why I had to go to DHS to explain to them what the Pickle Amendment is,” Means said. “I had a worker tell me he’s worked there for over four years and this was his first time hearing of this.”
Additionally, some adults in Arkansas who receive Medicare coverage due to their older age have been receiving smaller Social Security checks lately, Means said.
“Medicaid pays the premiums for Medicare, so when that happens, it comes out of the recipient’s [Social Security] check, and some people are already low-income or on disability,” she said.
Organizers’ letter to CMS also requests that Arkansas pause its ongoing project of disenrolling Medicaid recipients whose coverage was extended by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic. The extension ended in May, and states began “unwinding” it in April.
Since then, DHS has disenrolled more than 144,000 Arkansans from Medicaid after not receiving required eligibility information, in addition to the clients who asked to be disenrolled or made too much money to be eligible.
Arkansas Community Organizations have repeatedly expressed concern that some Arkansans who are still eligible for Medicaid could lose their coverage or have already lost it due to bureaucratic hurdles.
Most states have a full year to conduct the “unwinding,” but Arkansas has six months, as required by a 2021 state law. Arkansas Medicaid recipients asked in March for a one-year grace period, to no avail.
The group protesting Tuesday delivered the letter to the offices of Arkansas’ two U.S. Senators, John Boozman and Tom Cotton, in the Victory Building and then to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office in the Capitol.
Sanders’ and Boozman’s staff accepted the letter; no one answered the door at Cotton’s office.
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Jennifer Cole said she believed Boozman’s staff listened to her and the other protesters.
“I don’t know that we’re going to get the senator’s ear, but we can hope,” she said.
Cole said she lost access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, for six months due to paperwork issues at DHS.
“I called them and they had received [my paperwork], but nobody had had a chance to look at it, and that falls back on us,” she said.
Children have made up more than 40% of Arkansas Medicaid enrollees since July 1, according to DHS data.
Nearly 40% of the state’s disenrolled Medicaid clients in April and May were children, according to data collected by health policy researcher KFF, which has been tracking the Medicaid unwinding process nationwide.
Sholanda Woods said her daughter is one of them.
“[Sanders] came into office talking about how she loves our babies and our kids and stuff,” said Woods, a single parent. “…My child has diabetes and I can’t go to the pharmacy and get her medicine or anything like that.”
Spokespeople for Boozman and Cotton did not respond when asked via email whether the officials had seen the protesters’ letter as of Tuesday afternoon.
Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Sanders, said in an email that Arkansas has been following state and federal law throughout the unwinding process.
“DHS is using every tool to ensure people who are eligible remain covered and working with those who are no longer eligible to get coverage through their job or the healthcare marketplace,” Henning said.
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