OLYMPIA – Washington’s new state budget signed into law this week relies on the expansion of health care for the poor, both to provide insurance to hundreds of thousands of people and to help balance its bottom line.
But state residents will have to wait until October to sign up for that expanded Medicaid coverage, and until January for it to kick in. State officials agree that the program isn’t well understood yet, but say a major information campaign is coming to help people understand how it works and who will qualify.
In general, anyone whose annual income is below 138 percent of the poverty level will be eligible for free health care under Medicaid. That’s $15,864 a year for an individual and $26,952 for a family of three.
The state currently estimates about 190,000 will enroll in Medicaid plans next year and 57,000 the year after that. Some health care professionals question that number because $15,864 is less than the wages for an individual with a full-time job who makes minimum wage.
But Jim Stevenson of the state Health Care Authority said the new levels represent a significant shift from current law, which set an income limit of about $5,750 for an adult with no children and no serious conditions or disabilities. It also will be able to enroll children in households up to 300 percent of the poverty level.
Based on studies, about a half million people would be eligible for government-paid health care under Medicaid expansion, Stevenson said, so “we’re pretty comfortable” with that estimate.
Medicaid expansion dovetails with another major health care initiative, the establishment of a Health Benefit Exchange, which will attempt to do for people seeking medical insurance what Expedia or Travelocity do for people looking for the best deal on a plane ticket.
Starting Oct. 1, the exchange will be available online for people seeking health insurance. Among the information they will be required to enter is the number of people in the family and the family income. If that makes them eligible for the expanded Medicaid coverage, the program will tell them, show them their coverage options and allow them to sign up online for coverage that would be available on Jan. 1, 2014.
By agreeing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – the state will move people currently on certain state programs for low-income residents like Basic Health onto Medicaid and the federal government will pay 100 percent of their premiums for the next two years. That will free up an estimated $300 million the state is currently paying for people on that program.
These shifts represent a major change in health care and medical insurance in Washington, and state officials are preparing a major public relations and information program to explain it, said Ruth Schubert of Gov. Jay Inslee’s health care policy office.
A summit for health care executives on the exchange and Medicaid expansion is planned for Seattle on July 16, and the state has contracted with health care organizations around the state, including Empire Health in Spokane, to help explain the changes.
“Our hope is it’s common knowledge by Oct. 1,” Schubert said. “A lot of parties are interested in making this a success.”