ST. LOUIS — Frustrated that thousands of poor Missourians have lost Medicaid coverage in the past year and unhappy with state officials’ explanations, health care advocates took their complaints to the streets on Tuesday.
A couple dozen protesters held signs and passed out flyers during the morning rush hour at the busy intersection of Kingshighway and Lindell Boulevard in St. Louis. Similar protests were planned for the evening rush hour in Arnold, Springfield, Joplin and West Plains.
The protests were organized by Missouri Health Care for All, an advocacy group that’s calling on Gov. Mike Parson to intervene.
“The governor and his appointees are the ones with the power to investigate and remedy the problems,” said Jen Bersdale, the group’s director. “The longer they refuse to act, the more they really do bear the blame for what is happening.”
In a statement emailed Tuesday night to the Post-Dispatch, the Department of Social Services, which administers the Medicaid program, continued to cite an improving economy as one of several reasons why more than 100,000 people, mostly children, have been dropped from the rolls from August 2018 to July of this year — a nearly 11% drop.
That drop placed Missouri as the state with the biggest decline in health care coverage for poor children between March 2017 and March 2019, according to a study published last month by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The statement also pointed to improved efforts to purge Medicaid rolls of people who are not eligible, including using a new computerized renewal system.
The computer program, however, was found last spring to have several glitches, including failing to check other state databases — such as applications for food stamps — as required by federal law. The program also had trouble accessing federal income information.
“The Department will continue to monitor caseloads for all assistance programs to identify anomalies and address issues,” the statement read.
Eligible families often find out they’ve lost Medicaid coverage when they seek care or medication, advocates say, and face several hours on hold trying to get reinstated.
“They made it really easy for people to be automatically kicked off and really hard for people to get back on,” Bersdale said.
Legislators and advocates have for months been sounding the alarm and asking for better answers about the continuing drop.
“There’s been lots of behind-the-scenes meetings with officials, but there’s been no listening. We continue to hear the same talking points,” Bersdale said. “We want them to look at the actual causes and be honest about them and make fixing them a priority.”
In a letter last week to state House Speaker Elijah Haahr, Jennifer Tidball, acting director of the Department of Social Services, said the department is working with a contractor to improve call wait times.
About a third of the people who lost coverage didn’t answer letters to renew their eligibility, the letter read.
The latest email to the Post-Dispatch stated: “It is important to note that Missourians who have Medicaid coverage have some personal responsibility to continue to receive those benefits and must return the annual review form. Failure of individuals to return the annual review is one of the issues the Family Support Division (FSD) continues to address.”
Citizens have many ways to apply, the statement read, either online at MyDSS, by mail, by phone or in person at any of the resource centers located in each county.
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which provides free legal help for those in need, continues to help people reinstate their coverage.
Joel Ferber, advocacy director at Legal Services, said many of their clients never received renewal paperwork because of wrong addresses. Attorneys have also found cases where paperwork was never sent, but families were cut off anyway because of an error in the computer system, he said.
“We are able to get folks reinstated, but that only helps the folks who know how to contact us,” Ferber said.
The legal services agency is asking that no more children lose their Medicaid coverage until the state figures out what problems are plaguing the system.
Brenda Davis, who turns 20 next month, of St. Charles, says she has twice sought help from legal services: to help get coverage during her pregnancy last spring and now for her 13-month-old son, whose coverage was canceled two weeks ago.
Since April, Davis says she’s repeatedly sent paperwork to the state only to be told they never received it. She has spent hours on the phone unable to get through the automated system.
A stay-at-home mom, Davis says she and her fiance are barely scraping by on his salary as a coordinator with a company that administers benefits for unions.
She had to cancel her son’s one-year checkup and vaccinations until the issue gets resolved, she said. “They made it clear that when it’s canceled, they will not pay for any medical bills.”