Push Growing To Pause, Not Cancel, Medicaid For Kansans In Custody

Jan 23, 2018

Today, when mentally ill Kansans land in a psychiatric hospital or behind bars, they lose Medicaid coverage. When they’re freed, the daunting chore of signing up for government health coverage starts from scratch.

Now, a push gaining steam among state lawmakers would merely pause that coverage, keeping care and critical medications ready for mental health patients when they get out.

A bill introduced this week by Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Bishop of Wichita would let the state effectively “press pause” on Medicaid coverage for patients or inmates. It would immediately reinstate those benefits when they leave those facilities.

Current law requires inmates or patients to reapply for Medicaid. The application process can drag on for months and sometimes keeps patients from getting the very care that would have kept them out of jails, prisons and mental health facilities in the first place.

While the bill was motivated to help the mentally ill, it would apply to all Medicaid recipients.

“It’s a long process to qualify for Medicaid, and if you were on it before you went into a system, just suspending it makes more sense,” said Republican Sen. Vicki Schmidt, who chairs the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Committee members heard testimony Tuesday about the Senate version of the bill, which will track closely with the House version.

The legislation is backed by the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, the Disability Rights Center of Kansas and, notably, the Kansas Sheriffs’ Association. The group had opposed similar legislation last year over worries that it put the onus of reactivating Medicaid on law enforcement.

“This is one barrier that we can remove that will facilitate continuity of treatment for people with mental illness and addiction disorders,” said Rick Cagan, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The system would work like Victim Identification Notification Every Day, an information and notification system that allows crime victims to receive notifications when a perpetrator’s custody status changes, said Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment would be notified when a patient or inmate is about to leave custody, and would reactivate Medicaid benefits.

“We can’t afford to have that [reapplication] lag time,” said Colin Thomasset of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas. “That’s not something that patients deserve when they’re suffering from mental illness or substance use disorders.”

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Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox