On January 31st, 2020—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a Public Health Emergency (PHE) for the entire United States. Since then, the act has been continuously renewed in 90-day increments.
The PHE has fostered the health and wellbeing of low-income Washtenaw County residents in many ways
The PHE has prevented people from being removed from Medicaid, allowing for continuous health coverage. It’s increased food assistance benefits and strengthened nutrition programs. And it’s helped with rental and utility assistance during tough economic times.
But there’s now speculation that the nation’s PHE will soon end—meaning the end of enhanced benefits that thousands of people are relying on.
At May’s WHI Steering Committee meeting, several leaders from Washtenaw County health and human service organizations spoke to this subject and discussed concerns for their clients related to the inevitable end of the PHE.
One of the most pressing concerns is the end of continuous enrollment for Medicaid recipients
Jeremy Lapedis, executive director of the Washtenaw Health Plan, notes that from March 2020 to January 2022, Washtenaw County’s Medicaid population grew by 25 percent—from 53,000 to 67,000 people. But multiple challenges related to the state’s Medicaid renewal process could reverse that trend.
For instance, renewal instructions come through the mail. If your address isn’t up to date, you’ll likely miss yours. The instructions can also be complicated and forms have historically included incorrect information. Furthermore, enrollees must respond quickly. And, if your financial situation has improved, you may need to switch from Medicaid to Marketplace coverage.
The Washtenaw Health Plan, and other members of the WHI’s MMOE work group, can help clients navigate these challenges. But clients need to know to reach out for that assistance.
Other concerns include behavioral health, nutrition, and rental assistance
There’s also concern for clients with mental health or substance use needs, who typically have complex care coordination needs. Trish Cortes is the executive director of Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, and is concerned for her organization’s clients, the majority of whom are on Medicaid.
Cortes anticipates an increased administrative burden to assure clients don’t lose their coverage and stay on the correct form of Medicaid to support their mental health needs, a concern echoed by Lapedis at the Washtenaw Health Plan. There may also be an increased demand for support from Washtenaw County’s Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, as well as general fund dollars, to fill in gaps.
Jimena Loveluck, health officer of the Washtenaw County Health Department, notes the critical role Medicaid plays for access to SNAP and WIC programs administered through the department, as well as the enhanced benefits that have come with the PHE.
For example, PHE-related telehealth waivers have allowed the health department to meet with families by phone or video instead of in-person. This flexibility in service delivery has increased enrollment in SNAP and WIC—resulting in fewer missed appointments and greater continuity of care. But if telehealth flexibility ends, Loveluck believes enrollment will decline.
During the pandemic, the PHE also provided assistance to those who fell behind on rent. Teresa Gillotti, the director of Washtenaw County’s Office of Community and Economic Development, says COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) funds have serviced 3,816 households in Washtenaw County who have experienced financial hardships—such as being behind on rent or eviction—with an average assistance of $6,279.
The program allows households with back rent from March 13, 2020 through March 31, 2022 to apply for assistance. However, the application portal is slated to close at the end of June, before the program formally ends September 30, 2022, so now is a crucial time to get the word out to families who may benefit.
MDHHS is preparing for the end of the PHE
At the state level, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is also preparing for the end of the PHE—most notably, the ending of Medicaid’s continuous renewal process.
In May 2022, MDHHS hosted a webinar to inform health and human service providers across the state about how the end of the PHE will affect Medicaid beneficiaries. MDHHS has also created a website to share important information as the situation evolves.
The federal government will give states 60 days’ notice before ending the PHE, with the most recent PHE extension lasting through mid-July. Since there was no notice in mid-May, it is presumed that the PHE will be extended at least once more until mid-October.
Once the official end date is known, MDHHS will begin to mail notification letters to beneficiaries, each month, based on their renewal date. Medicaid beneficiaries can complete their renewal one of two ways—electronically through MI Bridges, the state’s online portal for benefits, or on paper (but only for those who receive an eligibility packet in the mail).
Multiple communication tools are in the works
MDHHS is developing a stakeholder toolkit—resources for organizations to inform clients about upcoming changes, such as a client-focused get ready flyer and one-pager with more detailed information about necessary renewal processes and documentation.
The state’s three initial key messages for clients include:
- Make sure your contact information is up to date—address, phone, and email—in MI Bridges
- Report changes in household income—via the portal or by contacting your local MDHHS office
- Check the mail for a renewal form—this should come two months before your renewal deadline (which is the month in which you enrolled)
MDHHS is working on additional communications resources—text messaging, social media posts, radio advertisements, and an online brochure. Furthermore, they’re taking questions from stakeholders to address in an FAQ section. Anyone with an unanswered question or suggestion can email ProviderSupport@Michigan.gov.
The WHI communications committee is exploring local materials
To assist its member organizations, the WHI communications committee is exploring the development of tailored materials to communicate important information about the PHE end—for both clients and decision makers.
Materials would include resources—such as flyers and social media content—to inform clients about the PHE ending and help them meet their needs, whether it’s staying enrolled in Medicaid or getting connected with other services.
They would also include short policy briefs and key message summaries for organizations to use with policymakers and leaders—to communicate the importance of changes that have happened since the PHE, such as the expansion of telehealth and its positive effects on coverage and healthcare.
Make sure to subscribe to the WHI newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to hear about the launch of these materials.
Questions about health insurance enrollment? The Washtenaw Health Plan is here to help. Call 734-544-3030 or email firstname.lastname@example.org