Kaiser Health News, November 14, 2017
Michelle Andrews

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If you’re poor, uninsured and fall seriously ill, in most states if you qualify for Medicaid — but weren’t enrolled at the time — the program will pay your medical bills going back three months. It protects hospitals, too, from having to absorb the costs of caring for these patients.

But a growing number of states are rescinding this benefit known as “retroactive eligibility.” On Nov. 1, Iowa joined three states that have eliminated retroactive coverage for some groups of Medicaid patients since the Affordable Care Act passed. Each state had to secure approval by the federal government.

Retroactive eligibility has been a feature of Medicaid for decades, reflecting the program’s emphasis on providing a safety net for poor, disabled and other vulnerable people. In contrast to private insurance, determining Medicaid eligibility can be complex and the application process daunting, advocates say. A patient’s medical condition also may keep families from applying promptly for coverage.

All four states — Arkansas, Indiana and New Hampshire, in addition to Iowa — have expanded Medicaid under the health law, which allowed states to include adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,000 for one person. So, in theory, most adults are required to have insurance under the ACA. In practice, each state still has a significant number of uninsured, ranging from 5 to 8 percent of the population.

The retroactive coverage “can compensate for the sorts of errors and lapses that can so easily occur on the part of both the applicant and the government bureaucracy” that delay applications, said Gordon Bonnyman, staff attorney at the Tennessee Justice Center, a public interest law firm that represents low-income and uninsured residents.

State and federal officials say eliminating the retroactive coverage helps encourage people to sign up for and maintain coverage when they’re healthy rather than waiting until they’re sick to enroll. It also fits into federal officials’ efforts to make Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for low-income adults and children, more like private insurance.

But consumer advocates and health care providers say the shift will saddle patients with hefty medical bills and leave hospitals to absorb more uncompensated care when patients can’t pay. Some worry this could be the start of a trend. [...]

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