Alaska News

Thousands of Alaskans could lose Medicaid benefits when federal health emergency ends

Thousands of Alaskans could lose Medicaid benefits as soon as July, when the federal government’s COVID-19 health emergency is expected to end.

Alaska’s state health officials face the daunting task of combing through pandemic-swollen Medicaid rolls to establish who will no longer be eligible for benefits when the emergency ends.

Health officials, who say they have been preparing for the shift for months, are concerned many of those Alaskans could soon find themselves without health insurance — particularly people who don’t know what steps to take to keep their coverage, don’t have up-to-date contact information on file, or who don’t act in time.

Officials here say thousands of Alaskans could lose Medicaid benefits when a policy enacted during the pandemic expires. That’s expected to happen sometime this summer.

Currently, nearly one in three Alaskans is enrolled in Medicaid, the country’s largest public insurance program. Recipients include eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults and people with disabilities. States administer the program, which is funded jointly by states and the federal government. Alaska’s Medicaid programs are known as DenaliCare and Denali KidCare.

Under a provision in the federal health emergency that began in March 2020, Alaskans who might otherwise have lost health care coverage were able to stay on Medicaid for the last two years without needing to submit annual paperwork — even if their income rose high enough that they were no longer eligible for the program.

In 2018, there were 238,000 Alaskans enrolled in Medicaid. In 2020, that number had grown to 258,000 — an increase of at least 20,000 people, said Shawnda O’Brien, director of Alaska’s Division of Public Assistance. Data for 2021 was not yet available, O’Brien said.

The roughly 20% increase here mirrored a similar jump in Medicaid enrollees around the country.

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Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced it was extending the health emergency for 90 days, setting the next possible end date in July.

Many people no longer eligible for Medicaid will still be able to get covered through the Affordable Care Act marketplace or through their employers, said Jane Straight, a director at United Way of Anchorage who helps Alaskans find and enroll in health insurance.

But Alaskans who are dropped from Medicaid will have only 60 days after that happens to sign up for alternative health coverage under a special open enrollment period. That’s why it’s important for people enrolled now to make sure their contact information with the Division of Public Assistance is up-to-date, to open all the mail they get from Medicaid, and to fill out any Medicaid renewal forms they receive, officials say.

National estimates put the number of people who stand to lose Medicaid coverage at close to 15 million people, including children.

Officials in Alaska won’t know exactly how many people could lose coverage until they look at each case individually after the emergency ends, O’Brien said.

“But our plan is to give as many residents as much notice as possible,” she said.

The state’s current plan is to send out notifications to existing Medicaid-eligible recipients before the public health emergency ends to let them know what they’ll need to do to stay enrolled, O’Brien said. Her biggest concern is that there may be Alaskans who are eligible for Medicaid but don’t complete their annual renewal process, which hasn’t been required of them for the past two years.

“If they don’t complete the renewal process, we would have to determine them ineligible until they provide us with the additional information,” she said.

Straight said her main worry with the Medicaid transition is that people might not know what to do once they’ve been dropped from the program.

“Even if they know about the marketplace, even if they know there’s an annual open enrollment period that always starts Nov. 1, they might think they have to wait till then. But they don’t,she said.So we love getting the word out to people that when this happens, help is available to help you figure out what your options are.”

Calling 211 can connect Alaskans with health care navigators who can walk them through the process and answer any questions they have. The help is free.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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