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Uninsured in Oregon already dropping

SALEM — As federal health care reform rolls out in Oregon, pen, paper and snail mail are proving to be more effective with a particular sector of the uninsured population.

Oregon already has shaved off 10 percent of its uninsured population in the past two weeks — despite technical problems at its health insurance exchange — thanks to its Medicaid expansion efforts.

About 56,000 Oregonians have signed up for Medicaid through the Oregon Health Authority’s fast-track enrollment process, spokeswoman Patty Wentz said, making a dent in the estimated total of 560,000 uninsured Oregonians.

“This is tremendous news for the thousands of Oregonians anxious to get access to quality, affordable health care,” Gov. John Kitzhaber said in a statement. “We still have a ways to go, but in reducing our uninsured rate by 10 percent in just two weeks, we’re showing what’s possible when a state is committed to fundamentally changing the health care system to provide better access, better health and lower costs.”

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act included a provision that allowed participating states to expand publicly funded health care coverage for low-income people by raising the income limit and providing federal funds to cover everyone eligible with no-cost insurance.

The Oregon Health Authority hopes to accomplish much of the expansion efforts through fast-track enrollment — a method in which Oregonians who already have been screened for food benefits or Healthy Kids can automatically enroll in the Oregon Health Plan with minimal additional processing. They will not have to go to Cover Oregon, the state-run health insurance exchange, either.

“It would be very inefficient to require people we know are already eligible to go through another application process through other means or Cover Oregon,” Wentz said. “It’s easier for the client. It’s also going to allow Cover Oregon to focus on the people who really need to go through Cover Oregon.”

Sheree Hart, whose family participates in Healthy Kids and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, received the fast-track enrollment letter that indicated her husband, who had been denied OHP coverage multiple times, would finally get in. She was among the first to send back her letter Oct. 2.

Hart is pleased with the news, she said, but she is eager for coverage to begin. The Harts will have to wait until Jan. 1 — the earliest new enrollees’ benefits can kick in.

“I’m happy, honestly, but I wish it would take effect sooner,” Hart said several weeks ago. “As long as I keep him alive until then, then we’ll be good.”

About 260,000 people who already were receiving SNAP benefits or participating in Healthy Kids and also qualified for Oregon Health Plan started receiving letters in late September. Because income requirements for SNAP and Healthy Kids are higher, not everyone who qualifies for those benefits also qualifies for OHP.

By 2016, a projected 257,000 Oregonians are expected to enroll in the Oregon Health Plan through the expansion. Most of the eligible people also will be eligible for fast-track enrollment, Wentz said.

People who receive the letters from OHA will have a one-page form to fill out and send back, and eventually, they’ll receive a confirmation letter. By the end of November, members are expected to receive their member packet and information about their coordinated care organization that will be in charge of meeting their medical needs. Soon after, the CCOs are expected to start communicating with the members.

Call volumes at the Oregon Health Plan customer service line also have skyrocketed since late September, Wentz said.

On average, almost 2,000 calls per day have been fielded at the phone bank in the last two weeks, compared with about 800 daily before fast-track enrollment began, she said.

“They’ve asked if this is real,” Wentz said about the callers. “People have cried because they’re so happy. They’ve been waiting years for coverage.

“After years and years of telling people no they’re finally getting to say yes to people.”

Fast-track enrollment

The Oregon Health Authority is offering automatic enrollment for Oregonians who already have gone through the screening process for Healthy Kids or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those who have been approved for these programs and have incomes 138 percent of the federal poverty line or less are being mailed letters.

About 260,000 Oregonians will be receiving these letters and they won’t have to apply through Cover Oregon. They will have to return a one-page form, however.

Those who think they qualify for fast-track enrollment but have not yet received a letter should call OHA toll-free at (800) 699-9075. OHA has asked those who have received letters to submit their forms by mail instead of enrolling by phone to help free up the lines.

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