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Arkansas Works enrollees soon will have a new option for reporting on their compliance with the program's work requirement that doesn't involve logging on to a state website.

Starting next Wednesday, they will be able to call a toll-free number and report their work activities or exemption status, the state announced Wednesday.

Also, next month, the state Department of Human Services plans to begin an advertising campaign, possibly including newspaper and radio ads, signs inside buses, and public-service announcements submitted to television stations, aimed at educating enrollees about the reporting requirement, spokesman Marci Manley said.

"We're six months in and [have been] evaluating how is implementation going, how is it playing out, what's the feedback that we're getting from people," Manley said. "A lot of the feedback was an option to report directly to DHS by phone, so we took a look at what the options were."

A lack of knowledge about the policy, a lack of Internet access and many participants' unfamiliarity with computers have been cited as reasons more than 12,200 Arkansans have lost coverage over noncompliance with the work requirement since the state began implementing it in June.

The work requirement is the first ever imposed by a state Medicaid program.

Kevin De Liban, an attorney with Jonesboro-based Legal Aid of Arkansas whose group has sued to stop enforcing the work requirement, said he doubts the new reporting option will have much of an effect.

"You've got a sinking ship, and DHS is boasting about fixing a leaking faucet," he said.

To meet the work requirement, Arkansas Works enrollees who don't qualify for an exemption must spent 80 hours a month working or on other approved activities and report their hours to the state.

Those who fail to meet the requirement for three months during a year are kicked off the program and barred from re-enrolling for the rest of the year.

Currently enrollees must report the hours through the website, access.arkansas.gov. They also can authorize people, such as friends or relatives or employees of the insurance companies responsible for their plans, to use the website on their behalf.

Under the new option, enrollees will be able to report their hours by contacting the Access Arkansas call center at (855) 372-1084

Operators also will attempt to call enrollees who have logged some hours, but not enough to meet the requirement for the month, to offer help, Manley said.

Call center operators currently can answer enrollees' questions, but can't enter information on their work hours or exemption status.

That help is available from the insurance companies only "during regular business hours" on weekdays and on some Saturdays, "depending on the time of year and carrier," according to a department news release.

By contrast, the Access Arkansas call center is open during the same hours enrollees can log into the website: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

To offer the additional help, the Human Services Department is assigning three of its own employees to work in the call center alongside the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care operators who staff the call center now, Manley said.

The Little Rock organization handles provider and beneficiary relations for the department under a contract worth $11.2 million during the fiscal year that started July 1, including $1.3 million for outreach and education on the work requirement.

"We'll be evaluating and monitoring the inflow of calls to see if more staff need to be shifted into the team," Manley said.

De Liban noted that enrollees still won't be able to call the Human Services Department offices in their counties to report their hours. Most who are required to use the website fail to report any hours, indicating that many don't know about or understand the requirement, he said.

"From our experience calling this and [Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care's] numbers, there have been at some points long wait times, dropped calls, calling one number and getting transferred to multiple other numbers," he said. "DHS hasn't given us any reason to believe they're capable of building a user-friendly phone system."

Manley said the call center's hours were expanded in August after the department received complaints about long wait times even though "the data didn't show it at that point." Information on the average wait time wasn't available Wednesday.

Legal Aid and two other advocacy organization in August filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C., contending that President Donald Trump's administration exceeded its authority under the law governing Medicaid when it approved the requirement in March.

A similar lawsuit stopped a requirement from taking effect in Kentucky in July.

State Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray said the phone reporting option is "a step in the right direction" but "doesn't go far enough in making sure that people who are eligible for Medicaid aren't getting kicked off arbitrarily."

"Without improvement, our rural hospitals will suffer, our economy will take a dramatic hit, and tens of thousands of hard-working Arkansans could lose their health insurance," Gray said in a statement.

Manley said that, as part of its outreach efforts, the department is working with colleges and universities to make sure students are aware of the requirement when it kicks in next year for enrollees who are age 19-29. It was phased in this year for enrollees age 30-49.

A budget for the campaign hasn't been determined, she said.

Arkansas Works covers people who became eligible for Medicaid when the state expanded eligibility in 2014 to adults with incomes of up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

The income cutoff this year, for instance, is $16,753 for an individual or $34,638 for a family of four.

Most enrollees receive the coverage through private plans, with the Medicaid program paying most or all of the premium.

In addition to the 12,277 enrollees who had lost coverage because of the requirement as of Nov. 7, 6,002 enrollees had accumulated two months of noncompliance and were on track to lose coverage on Dec. 1 unless they reported their hours or an exemption for November.

Manley said the department plans to release information Monday on how many of those enrollees ended up losing coverage.

A Section on 12/13/2018

Print Headline: Arkansas Works enrollees get new option to report compliance

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