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Medicaid is expanded for Utahns, particularly in wake of layoffs due to COVID-19 pandemic

But state doesn’t promote its availability, and questions arise about new work requirement as more lose jobs

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Utahns for the Medicaid Expansion rally in the rotunda at the state Capitol.

Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Medicaid is finally expanded in Utah and the program is accepting applications from anyone who finds themselves unemployed in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

But the process may not be as open as it should be.

“This is a really difficult time, obviously, with layoffs and unemployment ... it seems counterintuitive to have a work requirement right now,” Stephanie Burdick, a consumer representative on the Utah Department of Health’s Medical Care Advisory Committee, said Thursday during its monthly meeting, which was conducted via conference call to adhere to proper social distancing standards.

She said work may not be an option for some people come May 1, when the state’s work requirement is set to start affecting Medicaid eligibility.

Burdick expressed concern that Utahns who head to the Department of Workforce Services to file for unemployment aren’t automatically directed to apply for Medicaid.

And yet that is a good example of why Medicaid was expanded in Utah — even with all the waivers and restrictions put in place to get there — to help people who find themselves in between jobs and without health care.

Muris Prses, assistant director at Workforce Services, said his office provides additional information on supportive services for Utah’s unemployed, including Medicaid — but only if people ask about it.

“We don’t really advertise public assistance in Utah,” he said, adding that more could be done to inform people who might need assistance.

Emma Chacon, the state’s Medicaid operations director, said discussions are ongoing about possibly suspending the new work requirement amid the economic downturn resulting from the rapid spread of coronavirus.

The committee expressed concern, too, for existing Medicaid clients who may not know what to do when they have symptoms or think they need medical assistance.

A lot, Burdick believes, are showing up at emergency departments and that goes against federal, state and local health department recommendations to keep the illness from spreading, especially among health care workers.

“There so much going on, so quickly ... so it’s likely been missed,” Chacon said.

Full Medicaid expansion took effect in Utah in January, meaning adults ages 19 to 64 are eligible if they make up to 138% of the federal poverty level (which is $17,236 for an individual or $35,535 for a family of four). The federal government will cover 90% of the costs of expanding services, with the state covering the remaining 10%, according to the state health department.

Up to 120,000 Utahns are expected to now be eligible, and many of them have already applied, as enrollment is up again this month, the committee learned.

In addition to Medicaid, the United Way of Utah has set up the COVID-19 Community Response Fund to support organizations across the state that are helping Utahns “feeling the economic consequences of the outbreak and expand their capacity to serve more people,” the nonprofit group said Thursday. It is asking anyone who can to donate at uw.org/covid19-community-fund.

The fund aims to assist people with rent and mortgage payments, shelter diversion, crisis child care, health care for vulnerable Utahns, and, as usual, other referrals through its existing resource and information line, 2-1-1.

“Given the extreme economic circumstances in the state, we know a lot more people will be eligible,” said committee member Brian Monsen. “Another month in and we’re going to be deeper into the crisis.”