County insurance makes way for Medicaid
"There's 100 people in the waiting room right now!" says Ellen Rabinowitz, director of the Washtenaw Health Plan.
More than 8,500 low-income county residents get health care coverage through WHP. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, almost all of them will move into the expanded Medicaid program.
WHP sent members letters asking them to come in to talk about the change. Despite the crush, Rabinowitz's well-prepared staff (including a couple of temporary hires) saw most people within an hour.
That's impressive, because after months of infighting, the state legislature only decided to expand Medicaid in August, less than two months before Obamacare's October 1 start date. But Rabinowitz hadn't waited. She'd already put the staff through required online training--a sort of walk-your-way-through-Obamacare class--to help WHP members make the transition.
Some participants were sad to leave the well-regarded program. "These people have been wonderful," says a thirty-seven-year-old beautician who, with her child, has been on the plan for four years. "They do their jobs and try to help you."
Nervous about dealing with less sympathetic souls from the state Department of Human Services, she nonetheless acknowledges that it appears her Medicaid benefits will be at least as good as WHP's. She's able to see doctors for free and receive prescriptions for less than $10, and any hospital bills will be covered.
Bob Guenzel, who oversaw WHP's creation as county administrator in 2002, explains that Obamacare essentially made it irrelevant. "In theory, there's no need for a [local health insurance] plan," he says. "All of these folks will be covered."
Well, not all, says Rabinowitz: WHP will continue on a small scale to cover those people, mostly immigrants, who aren't eligible for Medicaid. Only green card holders who have lived here for at least five years can enroll, but most can't afford the plans offered in Obamacare's online "marketplace."
There's no doubt WHP provided enormous relief to many uninsured residents. "It takes a lot of stress away, knowing if something goes wrong, I can
go to the doctor," says a twenty-nine-year-old woman, who's worked temp jobs for a couple of years. Because pre-cancerous cells have been identified in her uterus, she's particularly eager to maintain coverage. She's already met with a WHP counselor. She won't qualify for Medicaid, so she's looking at the marketplace online--but at first the infamous computer glitches were making it difficult for her to find what she could afford.
The feds, Rabinowitz says, are "working very hard" to solve the problems. Finally, on October 15, WHP workers got their first two clients insured through the marketplace.
[Originally published in November, 2013.]