Hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma residents are now eligible for free health care. Do they know it?

Dr Daniel Joyce gave a different kind of news to the patients at the Hearts That Care clinic in Lawton.

Joyce, who runs the nonprofit free clinic, spoke to them to see if they would be eligible for free medical coverage as part of the state’s Medicaid expansion that went into effect Thursday.

Time and time again he found that many had been shocked – albeit pleasantly.

“I have a patient who has not had insurance for about 10 years,” he said. “We got them the information (about the Medicaid extension) and they came back in tears and said, ‘I’ve been approved, is this real? “

Almost a year after voters approved State Question 802, health officials and patient advocates celebrated Thursday as the Medicaid expansion went into effect and Oklahoma officially became the 37th state to accept the optional expansion.

This means that the hundreds of thousands of Oklahomais who meet the new income eligibility limits – $ 17,796 for an individual or $ 36,588 for a family of four – will now be covered by SoonerCare, the state’s Medicaid program. New registrants will not have to pay premiums and little or no co-payment for their care in the future.

In a state with the second highest uninsurance rate in the country (next to Texas), proponents of the expansion say it could be a game-changer in ensuring that some of the most vulnerable populations in the country State have access to free or almost free medical care.

And with the federal government bearing over 90 percent of the costs, a relatively small amount, $ 164 million, was needed in state funds to finance the expansion.

But the state faces another challenge: How do you ensure that hundreds of thousands of new eligible Oklahoma residents know about their new, life-changing benefits?

The stakes are high for both struggling residents and hospitals, especially in rural parts of the state where it is more difficult to get the message across. If there are not enough people enrolled under the expansion, many benefits, such as strengthening the financial health of rural hospitals, adding jobs in health care to the state economy and improved health outcomes for thousands of people, will be mitigated or delayed.

“I think there’s still a large chunk of the population that doesn’t even know it exists,” said Oklahoma Hospital Association executive director Patti Davis. “Most of us don’t want to think about health care until we need it, so it might not be a priority for a lot of people. But that’s why we need multiple communication strategies from different sources, coming from different angles to get the word out.

126,000 registrants and counting

Brenda Wilson, Verified Medicaid Application Advisor at the Variety Care Clinic, helps clients complete the benefit application online to see if they qualify for the SoonerCare extension. (Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch)

The Oklahoma Health Care Authority announced Thursday that approximately 126,000 Oklahoma residents have signed up for Medicaid benefits as part of the expansion since the agency began accepting claims in early June. (The benefits came into effect on July 1).

Melissa Richey, spokesperson for the agency, said the “big” of those requests were retired requests from people who had previously applied for Medicaid and were turned down because they were earning too much.

Richey said the agency was also working with hospitals, providers and other community service providers to spread the word. And the agency is donating $ 500,000 to Ghost Inc., an Oklahoma City public relations firm, for a marketing campaign that began in July. Half of the funds will come from the federal government.

She said this would include putting up billboards, print and digital ads, public service announcements and the “full range of integrated advertising.”

But there’s work to be done to meet the state’s projection that 200,000 Oklahoma residents – representing just 60% of the total eligible population – will enroll in the first year.

“We definitely know they’re out there,” Richey said. “And we’re using the information we’ve compiled to really target that audience as of (this month).”

Health care providers are also stepping up.

Variety Care, a health group with clinics statewide, has added counselors at many of its centers to help patients see if they are eligible and then sign up, if necessary.

Katy Knight, head of behavioral health and social services at Variety Care, said the nonprofit has helped more than 1,400 patients register through Medicaid over the past month.

Knight said that so far it has been a mixture, with some patients having a general idea of ​​what the expansion of Medicaid is, while others may know little or not much – thing.

“It’s a relatively short process for the most part,” she said. “It takes about 20 minutes and they can know immediately if they are approved.”

Are we doing enough?

Sarah Marshall, a volunteer at the Weatherford Food and Resource Center, loads groceries into a car during one of the centre’s weekly food drives. The center serves low-income residents and said it has been busier than usual since the pandemic due to many residents being put on leave or losing their jobs. (Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch)

But the numbers describe the challenges ahead.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 73% of the newly eligible population live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, Census data shows that some of the state’s highest uninsurance rates are found in rural Oklahoma, where accessing health services and the internet presents challenges in reaching this population.

Eddie Bennett, deputy director of the Weatherford Food and Resource Center, said he estimates 95% of the centre’s customers are likely from the newly eligible group.

Of the roughly 400 low-income residents he has helped serve over the past month, he recalls a few asking about upcoming Medicaid changes.

Although he said he was excited to learn more about the state’s marketing campaign to raise awareness, he is concerned the message may not reach many of the people he sees.

“For a lot of these people, they don’t have the Internet. They can have a TV or a newspaper, but that’s it, ”he said. “They’re not going to see things on social media or even have the internet to search for things.”

Bennett said community groups that serve low-income adults are working to make people aware of Medicaid so people can enroll before needing health services. But he said there’s not much they can do with the resources they have.

“If we had the money we could blitz it or whatever name you want it to send out applications by mail and be able to provide information that way, it could be really effective,” he said. -he declares. “But we just don’t have the funds to do something like this.”

Can Heads of State Help?

Katy Knight, manager of behavioral health and social services at Variety Care in Oklahoma City, reads a pamphlet on Medicaid, or SoonerCare as it’s called in Oklahoma. Knight said clients often need help applying for Medicaid, which is why the clinic has expanded its staff to help with expansion across the state. (Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch)

Of the 37 other states that have accepted the Medicaid expansion, Oklahoma is one of six states that passed it by ballot

While alternatives to the Medicaid expansion have been explored over the years, Gov. Kevin Stitt and many other Republican leaders have opposed the expansion, at least in the form approved by voters.

Stitt hasn’t spoken much publicly about the expansion, the benefits for the uninsured, the impact on the medical community, and the importance of people’s enrollment.

Instead, he focused his health policy efforts this year on converting the entire Medicaid program into a privatized managed care model. The move, which has met with opposition from Democrats, many legislative Republicans and the health care community, was recently blocked by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

In contrast, several Democratic governors in states that have embraced the expansion have been at the forefront of pushing residents to register.

In Louisiana, for example, their state governor John Bel Edwards helped organize several registration and in-person announcement events in 2017 to encourage people to register. And one study of the Kaiser Family Foundation found that other states were successful when prominent figures, such as the governor, helped raise awareness.

But Stitt spokeswoman Carly Atchison said the governor had no plans to do direct outreach.

“Secretary (Kevin) Corbett and the OHCA are doing an excellent job of disseminating information about the Medicaid expansion and our office has not been contacted by any lobbying groups asking for help,” she said. declared.

However, several health officials said they would welcome Stitt’s participation and voice, saying it can help reach people who otherwise might not have heard of the change.

“I think these campaigns could definitely increase awareness,” said Oklahoma State Medical Association president Dr. Mary Clarke. “We know anyone in a position of power or authority, the more you see them positively recognize things, the more people would be willing to try it.”

And after?

The good news for newly eligible residents is that there is no deadline for Medicaid coverage.

Every time someone applies and is approved, their new coverage begins.

As a result, Clarke and other health leaders say Medicaid’s outreach and expansion messages should be providers, and leaders statewide should keep working.

“Healthcare is a marathon, it will never be a sprint,” she said. “There will always be more work to register people. “

Trevor Brown has been a reporter for Oklahoma Watch since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health care policies, and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc

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