Medicaid dental and vision cuts worry patients and health-care providers; Democrats want answers, restoration of benefits

Kentucky is in the third week without dental, vision or non-emergency transportation benefits for 460,000 Kentucky adults on Medicaid, and Democratic lawmakers, health advocates and dentists are continuing to voice their concerns, prompting the state health cabinet to respond online, including a Facebook video that cites “misinformation that is circulating in the media.”

The 460,000 who lost their benefits are people covered by the state’s 2014 expansion of Medicaid, under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, to those who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Under a Medicaid plan that was vacated by a federal judge in Washington, this expansion group was supposed to move to a “My Rewards” program that allowed them to earn dental and vision benefits by participating in certain activities, like self-improvement classes or wellness activities or passing a GED exam. But when the plan was vacated two days before it was to take effect, the state says this left this group without any way to earn these benefits.

The abrupt removal of benefits created confusion among providers and beneficiaries, and prompted Democrats to hold news conferences questioning the reasons for the action and its legality.

Will Wright reported for the Lexington Herald-LeaderJuly 10 that the schedule of a Prestonsburg dentist showed five and a half hours of vacancies because more than half of her patients had lost their dental benefits.

Misty Clark, the dentist and owner of Healthy Smiles Family and Cosmetic Dentistry, told Wright that she normally has three patients per hour. The office manager, Jessica Clark-Boyd, told Wright that they have rescheduled dozens for appointments next month, hoping their insurance will be restored by then. “If not, Healthy Smiles could be in big financial trouble,” he writes.

Wright also tells the story of Lynda Joseph of Pikeville, a Healthy Smiles patient who was scheduled to get a tooth pulled this month, but is one of those who lost dental benefits. Joseph wondered why the Bevin administration would cut benefits to people who are so close to the poverty level.

Joseph, who works part-time at Walmart, told Wright that she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to get the extraction. “I don’t mind paying the premium,” she said. “Even if the premiums became higher, I wouldn’t mind that. The question is, am I going to be able to pay for it out-of-pocket?”

Democratic legislators from Eastern Kentucky, and a few others, held a news conference July 10 to “criticize both the moral and economic impacts” of these cuts, and called on Republican Gov. Matt Bevin to reinstate the benefits. The lawmakers said the cut “unnecessarily strips health-care benefits from working families and could hurt the state economy, particularly in Eastern Kentucky,” Wright reports.

He adds that a report from the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy found that the Medicaid expansion “has pumped billions of dollars into the economy and created thousands of jobs — half of the net job growth in Kentucky since December 2007 came from the health care sector.”

At a time coal has declined, “The industry that we have seen in our region that has actually been able to grow some, to be able to invest in its infrastructure, to be able to provide quality health care throughout our region, has been the health-care industry because of the expansion of Medicaid,” House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins said at the news conference in Pikeville.

Rep. Angie Hatton of Whitesburg said, “We can’t stand to lose more jobs, and our health- care industry will lose jobs because of this,” reportsChristina Bates of Hazard’s WYMT-TV.

Bates also tells the story of Cory McCauley, who said she was one who lost her dental and vision benefits, and that she had learned about it on the news. “We got no notification in the mail whatsoever,” she said. McCauley told Bates that she and her husband have relied on the program while he is in medical school.

“I actually had an appointment because I have a cavity . . . so now I can’t keep that appointment because I’ll have to pay for it out of pocket, which is just not realistic for us right now with no income,” said Bates.

Kentucky Voices for Health has a video of the news conference, and a blog post about the recent changes, by KVH policy analyst Jason Dunn.

William E. Collins, a dentist in Pike County, wrote an opinion piece for the KVH blog that says the cuts are so harmful to “the working poor.” He notes the hundreds of appointments he and his colleagues had to cancel last week because the online benefit system listed patients’ benefits as “no current coverage” or “alternative benefits.” But he also says that through a team effort between providers and the state, part of the eligibility issues were resolved.

“This is not about politics. This is about humanity,” Collins wrote. “Placing blame seems to be necessary for some, but finding and correcting the problem is what the enrollees need.”

All 37 members of the state House Democratic Caucus sent a letter July 10 to Health Secretary Adam Meier asking him to answer a long list of questions about the process used to remove the benefits; how the new benefit structure is affecting recipients and providers; the expected impact of removing the benefits; and how premiums already collected will be returned.

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville sent a letter to Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that also included a list of pointed questions that asked for “clarification regarding these changes.”

“Given that the federal government covers 94 percent of all Medicaid expansion costs in Kentucky, the dysfunction Gov. Bevin has brought to this critical health care system should be of great concern to you and your agency,” Yarmuth wrote. “Health care coverage for the people of Kentucky is too important to be jeopardized by politics and dysfunction.”

Meanwhile, the Poor People’s Campaign protesters, who were finally allowed entry into the Capitol July 10 for the first time since a judge ruled police broke the law by denying them entry, delivered toothbrushes to the governor’s office in protest of the dental and vision cuts, WKYT reports.

In a July 6 letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, three advocacy groups asked the agency to disapprove the withdrawal of dental and vision benefits, saying the state failed to comply with procedural requirements, including an appropriate public-notice period or a 30-day public comment period required by federal law. They also cite that the judge’s intent was that the program remain status quo until after Azar’s further review of the plan, called Kentucky HEALTH for “Helping to Engage and Achieve Long Term Health.”

In a July 10 Facebook video, Kristi Putnam, deputy secretary for the health cabinet, says there has been a “good deal of confusion and misinformation” about Kentucky HEALTH since the federal judge “temporarily stopped its implementation.”

Putnam who is also the program manager for Kentucky HEALTH, asks “media partners” to call the cabinet if they learn about beneficiaries or providers who are having issues, explaining that the Pikeville dentist who spoke to the Louisville Courier Journal last week had his problems resolved within two hours, but this wasn’t reported in the article. “Please let us help,” she said.

Putnam added that Medicaid systems have been checked and are running properly, and that eligibility was in place for pregnant women, children and foster children up to the age of 26. She said the website has been updated with new resource pages and the computer screens used by providers have been improved to allow for better understanding of who qualifies for dental and vision benefits and who doesn’t.

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