Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Longer wait times for Latinos in Florida are 'locking families out' of Medicaid


According to the advocacy group UnidosUS, Spanish speakers in Florida waited an average of 2.5 hours in July and August, while English speakers waited an average of 36 minutes.

Spanish-speaking Floridians are experiencing wait times more than four times longer than English speakers when reapplying over the phone for Medicaid coverage, according to a new report.

And with hundreds of thousands of people removed from the state's Medicaid rolls since April — and a significant number of those still eligible for the program — advocates fear a 'fiasco' for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

In Florida, most recipients of this health care program for low-income groups are children.

According to a new report from the national advocacy group UnidosUS, Spanish speakers in Florida wait an average of 2.5 hours for help via the state's Medicaid call center, based on calls made in July and August. English speakers wait an average of 36 minutes.

"Neither way is acceptable," said Stan Dorn, director of the Health Policy Project at UnidosUS.

"Not many people can take a 36-minute break at work to reach a person on the Medicaid call line and renew their children's coverage. To wait two-and-a-half hours to reach a human being? That is locking families out of keeping Medicaid."

Florida began a roughly yearlong process of removing people who no longer qualify in April — a process that's called the Medicaid unwinding. It came after federal protection rules, which had required state Medicaid agencies to keep people continuously covered for about three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, expired on March 31, 2023.

People typically do need to reconfirm their eligibility for Medicaid every year, but states couldn't remove anyone during the pandemic moratorium, leading to a backlog of cases to review.

Florida identified about 900,000 people to remove from the state Medicaid rolls, and has taken at least 408,000 people off so far, but 55% of them still qualify for it.

Federal officials with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have warned Florida and other states, including Alaska, Montana, Rhode Island and New Mexico, over a number of problems like the long call center wait times, which may contribute to a surge in the number of people losing Medicaid health care coverage.

Across the U.S., more than 4 million people have been dropped from Medicaid rolls. All states are now working through a backlog of eligibility determinations, which led to the influx of calls to state Medicaid help centers.

CMS could threaten to withhold federal money until states like Florida explain their shortcomings, said Joan Alker, who directs Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families.

"Florida already has one of the highest child uninsured rates in the nation, and the state's mishandling of this unwinding is likely to make a bad situation worse," Alker said.

Aggravators and possible solutions

According to UnidosUS, the digital platform where people apply for Medicaid — called ACCESS — is not "mobile friendly" and only works well on a computer.

Many of the state's Latino families don't have access to a computer and need to rely on their phones, according to Jared Nordlund, a state advocacy director with the group. So they are stuck waiting hours for help by phone.

"We need the state to step up and meet the needs of our community to avoid another fiasco like the meltdown of the state’s unemployment system at the beginning of the pandemic," Nordlund said.

Dorn, of UnidosUS, suggests Florida tap into its 2023 budget surplus and federal funding available to hire more call center staff. "Nobody wants eligible people to lose their healthcare because of red tape and bureaucracy but that is what is happening," he told WLRN.

Erica Monet Li, an analyst at the nonpartisan nonprofit Florida Policy Institute, says Florida has options to fix problems and help reinstate the people terminated for red tape reasons.

"We could pause redeterminations until the call center is fully staffed and trained to handle the increased call volume," Monet Li said.

Other factors aggravating the situation is that people aren't always receiving the grace-period coverage while the state verifies their ineligibility.

"So somebody gets a notice on the 15th of the month that their coverage is scheduled to end on the 30th. On the 20th, they go in and file an appeal, if they find their way, and nevertheless, their coverage ends at the end of the month," said Lynn Hearn, an attorney at the Miami-based Florida Health Justice Project.

Analysts say when people are insured, they cost the state less because they get checkups. Those who are uninsured tend to forego care until they're very ill, and then need expensive hospital visits.

Veronica Zaragovia