Last July, Gov. Bill Walker fulfilled a major campaign promise and adopted Medicaid expansion.
Since September 1 low-income Alaskans have been able to sign up for the federally-funded insurance program.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey checked in with a local health insurance “navigator” to find out if Sitkans were taking advantage of the opportunity.
Note: Alaskans eligible for Medicaid can enroll at any time at healthcare.gov, by calling 1-800-318-2596, or by visiting any Public Assistance Office.
For Alaskans eligible for health insurance in the marketplace, the enrollment deadline is January 30, 2016. Please visit healthcare.gov or call 1-800-318-2596 for complete information.
Andrea Thomas is the insurance outreach and enrollment manager at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium in Sitka.
She’s been helping people throughout the region enroll in Medicaid for just over three months, and seems clearly relieved.
“Quite a few people that I’ve been helping have gotten their cards. And they’re thrilled to be finally getting insurance for the first time.”
Listen to an extended interview with SEARHC Enrollment Manager Andrea Thomas and Monique Martin, a health care policy advisor to the Commissioner of Health and Social Services:
Medicaid expansion covers Alaskans between the ages of 19 and 64 who don’t have enough income to qualify for insurance in the health insurance marketplace created two years ago by the Affordable Care Act. The ACA initially required states to open up Medicaid for this group, but the Supreme Court ruled that part of the law to be unconstitutional.
Twenty-six states — all led by Republican governors — declined to accept Medicaid expansion, even though the program was almost fully-funded by the federal government.
Last year, when Bill Walker, an Independent, became governor, Alaska
became one of six states to reverse its position.
An estimated 42,000 Alaskans too poor to qualify for subsidized health plans can get coverage now.
“I had people last year, that this health care wasn’t even an option for them because they fell below the income level to be assisted — which seems kind of crazy and people left my office in tears — so this is the first year when people are coming in, I help them apply on the health insurance marketplace, and very often they get an immediate determination.”
Medicaid expansion covers individuals ages 19 – 64 who earn less than $1,700 a month. It covers couples who earn less than $2,300 a month.
Thomas says candidates for Medicaid are pretty diverse.
“It could be students. I’ve had a lot of self-employed people. People that fish — they’ve had some rough years the last couple of years. So it’s a much different population than maybe you would assume.”
People enroll for Medicaid the same way they enroll for health insurance in the marketplace: by going online to healthcare.gov, calling the 24-hour number (1-800-318-2596), or filling out a paper application. Local clinics, and agencies like The United Way, public assistance centers, and MyAlaska — the state’s web portal — can all steer people in the right direction.
Thomas, however, remains a fan of the healthcare.gov, despite its now-infamous opening-day flop last year. She says that once you sign up on the website, it determines what program you qualify for.
“The people I’ve assisted on the health insurance marketplace — and they’ve been found to be eligible for Medicaid — often get their cards much sooner than people who have applied by paper months ago. So healthcare.gov really is the fastest, best way to apply for both kinds of coverage.”
The Affordable Care Act has gotten some bad press recently. Customers have found that the insurance plans they bought last year have changed, become more expensive, or both. Thomas says that as insurance costs have risen, so have the subsidies. If you earn too much for Medicaid and have to buy insurance in the marketplace, your premium should never exceed 8-percent of your income.
She recommends you get in touch with her (907-966-8883), or any other insurance navigator, before giving up.
“By far the majority have really positive experiences. But if you happen to be somebody where there are issues, that’s when we’re here for people. So we can help them navigate that process.”
And if you are found to be eligible for Medicaid, and get signed up, Thomas cautions you to stay involved. If your circumstances change — your income goes up, you have a baby, any number of things — Medicaid will need to know. She says that she’s available to help you stay updated, so that you don’t incur penalties.
“Insurance is tricky,” she says.