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With Black Residents at Risk of Losing Medicaid, These Orgs Are Here to Help

Between eligibility staff shortages and lack of community engagement, local advocates worry some residents won’t get help in time.

Local health advocate organizations are mobilizing to keep Black communities informed about Medicaid unwinding. (Getty Images)

Starting next month, millions of Georgia residents will have their Medicaid eligibility reevaluated, and local grassroots organizations are mobilizing to keep Black communities informed.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which, among many things, required states to keep people enrolled on Medicaid through the end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency on May 11.

Starting on April 1, Georgia will start the process of unwinding —  reviewing and reevaluating — eligibility for the 2.7 million people on Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids. Once the month of May ends, the state will be allowed to remove people from the Medicaid rolls.

According to local experts, it’s estimated that more than 500,000 residents could lose their Medicaid coverage. According to a 2021 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the majority of patients on Medicaid in Georgia are Black.

As the state urges recipients to update their contact information, local advocates are doing their best to make sure people are aware the reevaluation process is taking place.  The Department of Human Services says residents should have received letters if the organization needed more information to ensure there are no lapses in coverage. Once the state begins the process, Medicaid eligibility will be reviewed in “batches” over the course of 14 months.

JaMelle Hill is a co-chair for the Poor People’s Campaign in Georgia and a former Medicaid recipient who said she had a hard time jumping through various hoops to ensure her information was correct so that she wouldn’t lose eligibility.

Hill worries about DHS’ capacity to stay on top of communication, given its understaffing issues and her own experiences. Gov. Brian Kemp did propose $3.8 million to hire 380 Medicaid eligibility workers for DHS, along with a $2,000 pay increase, but advocates say the department will still be critically understaffed. 

“I’ve been on Medicaid, and I know what it’s like to receive a letter,” Hill said. “You stay on the phone forever, or you can’t talk to someone, so you have to send a message and wait for them to call you back. Well, what if I’m working when you call back? Now I’ve missed your call and I have to get back in the lineup.” 

Organizations like the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Voters Matter have launched initiatives to ensure that as many people of color are in the know as possible. 

This month, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, and Georgians for a Healthy Future hosted a webinar about the unwinding process. The partnerships and corresponding information campaigns are an effort to provide information communities with resources needed to stay covered. 

“The purpose of this webinar is to let people know what they can do from a policy [perspective],” Hill said. “There’s certain policies we can ask for. Like expanding the budget so DHS can hire more people to handle this load. There’s certain requests that we can make to our policymakers to ease this burden.” 

Black Voters Matter, an Atlanta-based voting rights group, says it’s been using its “Get Out The Vote” model to knock on doors to inform people. The organization is also working to raise awareness in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid by hosting health care phone banks for residents. 

On March 21, the organization launched the “Sick and Tired” campaign, an effort to rally Black voters around the importance of pushing for Medicaid expansion and better health care resources. Black Voters Matter is also working with their partner organizations, like the Poor People’s Campaign, to collect data and track how many people get dropped from the rolls. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency from the departmental and agency levels who are responsible for administering care,” said Fenika Miller, the deputy field director for Black Voters Matter.

Miller said the lack of communication between the state and those working to keep their Medicaid eligibility is concerning. She recalled the end of the state’s eviction moratorium in 2021, and how residents weren’t made aware that there was a reprieve available. By the time those affected knew about the assistance, the deadline for help had come and gone. Miller said she didn’t think state officials took the issue seriously enough, which played a role in a high number of evictions. 

“We don’t know where [staff] are to get signed up. We don’t know what their process is,” she said. “There is no sense of urgency to make sure that those folks have the information, the resources and the support that they need.”

The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities has a robust email base that it’s  been utilizing to inform people about the looming reevaluations, and leveraging partnerships with organizations such Georgians for a Healthy Future to help. 

“Medicaid unwinding is a new experience for all of us, and so it’s hard to predict just how it’s gonna play out,” said D’Arcy Robb, the executive director at GDCC.

Like the other groups, Georgians for a Healthy Future partnered with social workers, food banks, and other organizations that may be in touch with Medicaid recipients regularly.

“Even before the pandemic, Georgia had one of the slowest Medicaid application processing times in the country,” said Laura Colbert, the executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future. “Given the level of turnover we’re seeing now among eligibility workers, it’s probably pretty unlikely that that improves.”

The state is urging those potentially affected to visit Georgia Gateway, its website for information on social services. On the Gateway portal, Medicaid recipients can make sure all of their relevant info is up to date. 

In the meantime, Hill and her team at the Poor People’s Campaign also plan to collect stories from and bring attention to residents who end up losing their coverage. 

“We are always looking for testifiers,” Hill said. “The only [way] change can come about is we have to amplify the message of those who are directly impacted by the injustices that are being done.”