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How will rural Americans fare during Medicaid unwinding? Experts fear they’re on their own

Abby Madore, a navigator in Carson City, hands out information on Nevada's open enrollment period beginning in November during an event in Reno.

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
KFF Health News
Abby Madore, a navigator in Carson City, hands out information on Nevada's open enrollment period beginning in November during an event in Reno.

Experts say the lack of help available to rural Americans in navigating insurance options puts them at greater risk of losing health coverage than people in metropolitan areas.

Abby Madore covers a lot of ground each day at work.

A staffer at a community health center in Carson City, Nevada, Madore spends her days helping low-income residents understand their health insurance options, including Medicaid. Her phone is always ringing, she said, as she fields calls from clients who dial in from the state’s remote reaches seeking help.

It’s a big job, especially this year as states work to sort through their Medicaid rolls after the end of a pandemic-era freeze that prohibited disenrollment.

A few dozen specialists work for seven navigator organizations tasked with helping Nevadans enroll in or keep their coverage. Madore said she mostly works with people who live in rural Nevada, a sprawling landmass of more than 90,000 square miles.

Katie Charleson, communications officer for Nevada’s state health marketplace, said it’s always a challenge to reach people in rural areas. Experts say this problem isn’t unique to the state and is causing concern that limited resources will throw rural Americans into jeopardy as the Medicaid unwinding continues.

Recent data submitted to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services shows 72% of people who have lost Medicaid coverage since states began the unwinding process this year were disenrolled for procedural reasons, not because officials determined they are no longer eligible for the joint state-federal health insurance program.

By late August, federal officials directed state Medicaid overseers to pause some procedural disenrollments and reinstate some recipients whose coverage was dropped.

Experts say those procedural disenrollments could disproportionately affect rural people.

A brief recently published by researchers at the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families noted that rural Medicaid recipients face additional barriers to renewing coverage, including longer distances to eligibility offices and less access to the internet.

Nationwide, Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, covered 47% of children and 18% of adults, respectively, in small towns and rural areas, compared with 40% of children and 15% of adults in metropolitan counties.

“As is clear from our research, rural communities rely on Medicaid to form the backbone of their health care system for children and families,” said Joan Alker, who is one of the brief’s co-authors, the executive director of the Center for Children and Families, and a research professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “So if states bungle unwinding, this is going to impact rural communities, which are already struggling to keep enough providers around and keep their hospitals.”

A lack of access to navigators in rural locales to help Medicaid enrollees keep their coverage or find other insurance if they’re no longer eligible could exacerbate the difficulties rural residents face. Navigators help consumers determine whether they’re eligible for Medicaid or CHIP, coverage for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, and help them enroll. If their clients are not eligible for these programs, navigators help them enroll in marketplace plans.

Navigators operate separately from Nevada’s more than 200 call center staffers who help residents manage social service benefits.

Navigators are required by the federal government to provide their services at no cost to consumers and give unbiased guidance, setting them apart from insurance broker agents, who earn commissions on certain health plans. Without them, there would be no free service guiding consumers through shopping for health insurance and understanding whether their health plans cover key services, like preventive care.

Roughly 30 to 40 certified enrollment counselors like Madore work at navigator organizations helping consumers enroll in plans through Nevada Health Link, the state health marketplace, which sells Affordable Care Act plans, said Charleson. One of these groups is based in the small capital city of Carson City, 30 miles south of Reno, where fewer than 60,000 people live. The rest are in the urban centers of Reno and Las Vegas.

Availability of navigators and their outreach tactics vary from state to state.

In Montana, which is larger than Nevada but has one-third the population, six people work as navigators. They cover the entire state, reaching Medicaid beneficiaries and people seeking help with coverage by phone or in person by traveling to far-flung communities. For example, a navigator in Billings, in south-central Montana, has worked with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes, whose reservations lie relatively nearby, said Olivia Riutta, director of population health for the Montana Primary Care Association. But officials struggle to reach northeastern Montana, with its Fort Peck Reservation.

Having navigators in rural communities to help people in person is an ongoing challenge the country faces, said Alker. But the unwinding circumstances make it an especially important moment for the role navigators play in guiding people through complex insurance processes, she said.

This became clear following a recent survey regarding what consumers encounter when independently searching for health coverage on Google. “The results are really concerning,” said survey co-author JoAnn Volk, a research professor and the founder and co-director of the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

The researchers found that former Medicaid enrollees looking for health plans on the private market face aggressive, misleading marketing of limited-benefit products that don’t cover important services and fail to protect consumers from high health costs.

Researchers shopped for coverage using two profiles of consumers who were losing Medicaid coverage and were eligible for a plan with no premiums or deductibles on the ACA marketplace.

The team reported, though, that none of 20 sales representatives who responded to their queries mentioned that plan, and more than half pushed the limited-benefit products. The representatives also made false and misleading statements about the plans they were touting and misrepresented the availability or affordability of the marketplace plans.

The sales reps and brokers quoted limited plans that cost $200 to $300 a month, Volk said. Such an expense could prove unaffordable for consumers who may still be low-income despite being ineligible for Medicaid.

“If they can’t get to a navigator, I would not trust that they would get to their best coverage option in the marketplace, or to the marketplace at all, frankly,” Volk said.

Making a difficult problem more challenging, the federal government does not require states to break down Medicaid disenrollment data by county, making it harder for experts and researchers to track and differentiate rural and urban concerns. The Center for Children and Families does so with data from the Census Bureau, which Alker pointed out won’t be available until next fall.

A data point that will be important to watch as states continue the redetermination process, Alker said, is call center statistics. People in rural areas rely more heavily on that method of renewing coverage.

“Call abandonment rate” is one such statistic. CMS defines it as the percentage of calls that drop from the queue in two separate measures — calls dropped up to and including 60 seconds, and calls dropped after 60 seconds. In August, the agency sent a letter to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services about its rate: An average of 56% of calls dropped in May, the first month after Nevada’s unwinding began.

The agency “has concerns that your average call center wait time and abandonment rate are impeding equitable access to assistance and the ability for people to apply for or renew Medicaid and CHIP coverage by phone and may indicate non-compliance with federal requirements,” said Anne Marie Costello, deputy director of CMS.

In the letter, Costello also cited the 45% of Medicaid enrollees whose coverage was terminated for procedural reasons in May.

All 50 states received letters about early data, but only Idaho, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah had higher disenrollment rates than Nevada, and no state had a higher rate of call abandonment.

Officials at Nevada’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services said its call center, staffed by 277 family service specialists, receives more than 200,000 calls a month. A spokesperson said the phone system offers self-service options whereby customers can obtain information about their Medicaid renewal date and benefit amounts by following prompts. Because those calls aren’t handled by a case manager, they are considered “abandoned,” the spokesperson said, raising the rate even though callers’ questions may have been fully addressed.

People shopping around for coverage after a lapse might go into a panic, Madore said, and the best part of her job is providing relief by helping them understand their options after disenrollment from Medicaid or CHIP.

When people find out the wide range of free services navigators like Madore offer, they’re shocked, she said.

“They’re unaware of how much support we can provide,” Madore said. “I’ve had people call me back and they say, ‘It’s my first time using insurance. Where do I go to urgent care?’”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.