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People Give Health Plans An Anemic Response Existing Programs To Cover The Uninsured Begging For Customers

While state lawmakers toil to cover the uninsured, federal and state programs already in place go begging for customers.

The state nearly canceled Health Access Spokane last July when it failed to sign up enough people for the free health insurance program. It was revived, but thousands of available spots in the program remain unfilled.

About 1,406 adults are enrolled in the program, which has enough money to cover 5,000 people, said Rochelle Salsman, project director.

Health Access is one of just three joint state and federal programs of its kind in the nation. The $3 million-a-year program began in April 1993 and is scheduled to end in March 1996.

It has never come close to serving all the people it could.

“I don’t really know why. It’s been a disappointment,” said James Hadley, project officer with the federal Health Care Financing Administration, which pays about half the cost of the program. The state picks up the rest.

“I don’t know what’s going on. It’s a mystery to me.”

It’s a similar story with the Basic Health Plan.

There are $83 million in the state budget to put 126,000 people on the Basic Health Plan, which provides low-cost, state-subsidized health benefits for people without insurance.

So far, only 56,000 people have signed up, said the state Health Care Authority.

State officials say they are frustrated by the difficulty in helping some of the state’s estimated 500,000 people without insurance.

“People really are not flocking to the Basic Health Plan,” Salsman said. “They are concerned about coverage for their kids, but if they have a small amount of discretionary income many people, if they are healthy, just choose not to have health care coverage.”

Some lawmakers assume more people will sign up for the Basic Health Plan if the state pays a larger share, making coverage more affordable.

Gov. Mike Lowry has asked state lawmakers to include $63.8 million in the 1995-97 budget to spur use of the program by providing a bigger subsidy.

But the state also has to do a better job of getting the word out about both programs, said Jean Kinden, government programs administrator for Group Health Northwest, a large health maintenance organization in Spokane.

Group Health contracts with the state to provide care under several state government health programs.

The state distributes flyers at welfare offices about the Basic Health Plan, but that might not be the best way to reach working people, who are the program’s primary market.

“It’s very difficult to get people excited about something they know nothing about,” Kinden said. “We are talking about the people who run Jim’s Lawnmower Services or Betty’s Magic Mirror Beauty Shop. Working stiffs who are paying taxes and raising families without health benefits. They have never been in a welfare office.”

Kinden said she sees a real need for both programs. “The state deserves a pat on the back for setting up these programs, and providing money for them.

“That’s a marvellous thing, because people really need them. But they have done a terrible disservice to state residents by not making these programs known.”

John Beare, health director for the Spokane County Health District, called Health Access Spokane a “lost opportunity.”

“People just don’t know about this program,” Beare said. “So many people would benefit from it, it’s really too bad.”

Health officials plan to start using non-traditional methods to market the program, including advertisements on country music radio stations, outreach to churches, and working with community agencies and the local Chamber of Commerce, Salsman said.

One problem they didn’t anticipate is that some people are suspicious of something that’s free, Salsman said.

Health Access Spokane is available to low-income people only, including single people who make $934 or less per month; couples that make less than $1,254 per month, and families of four that make less than $1,894 monthly.

It covers preventive care, visits to the doctor, X-rays, lab work, hospitalization, prescriptions and emergency care.

To apply, call (800) 826-2444 from 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Stay on the line for an operator and ask for help enrolling in Health Access Spokane.

Call the same number to apply for the Basic Health Plan. The plan is available on a sliding fee scale to people of all income levels, except those eligible for Medicare, as long as they do not already have better coverage.

Only state residents are eligible for either program.