Many Not Happy With Mississippi Medicaid Meeting

Jeff Caler drove from Petal to Jackson hoping to get specific answers about how people can cope when they lose Medicaid coverage next week. After sitting through more than two hours of presentations by officials from Medicaid, Medicare and state Department of Human Services, Caler said he wasn't satisfied.

"It was a lot of sidestepping, a lot of smoke and mirrors,'' said Caler, who works for Faith in Action, a group that helps the needy and elderly get social services.

More than 300 people packed an auditorium at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum on Tuesday to hear about prescription drug coverage that people can apply for after they're removed from Medicaid.

At Gov. Haley Barbour's request, lawmakers voted last month to move 65,000 people off Medicaid to save $41 million.

Medicaid is a federal-state program that provides health coverage for the needy, aged, blind and disabled and for low-income families with children. Mississippi's program has grown significantly in recent years.

Budget times are tight, and the cuts are scheduled to take effect July 1. But many legislators say they want to either delay the changes or make sure the 65,000 people stay on Medicaid until the federal Medicare program has a fully developed prescription plan on Jan. 1, 2006.

About 60,000 of those losing Medicaid will be covered by Medicare, and Barbour is seeking federal waivers to continue covering the others with Medicaid. Many patients worry they won't have enough prescription coverage the next 18 months.

During the hearing Tuesday, many in the audience sat with crossed arms and frowns on their faces as officials outlined a history of how Mississippi's Medicaid program has grown.

Constantinos I. Miskis, regional director for the office of the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said there are three options for drug coverage for people moving off Medicaid:

  • Medicare, a federal health program for the elderly, is providing $600 prescription drug credits to people at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. Under current guidelines, that's an income of $12,569 for a single person or $16,862 for a married couple. The $600 credit is available for the rest of this calendar year, and another $600 is available in 2005. People can use the money when they get prescriptions filled. Medicare is set to start a more extensive prescription benefit on Jan. 1, 2006.
  • People can apply for any of 41 Medicare-approved drug discount cards.
  • Pharmaceutical companies are offering about 180 other programs that allow people to apply for free or discounted drugs. Barbour has said there are more than 1,350 prescription drugs available through the companies' programs.

All of that information seemed to matter little to Jo Cagley of Petal, who attended the public hearing with Caler.

Cagley, 68, uses a wheelchair and said she takes 17 prescription drugs for a variety of ailments, many of which stem from the diabetes she's had for 45 years. She said she cried and prayed after receiving a Medicaid cutoff letter.

Cagley said her only income is $622 a month in Social Security disability payments, and her prescriptions would cost more than $900 a month if she paid full price. Even with the $600 annual Medicare credit and other discounts, she doesn't know how she'll buy her medicine and pay her other bills.

"I feel like they're trying to execute us to get us out of the way just because we're so old and useless,'' Cagley said.

Caler asked Medicaid officials how people like Cagley are supposed to survive.

Francis Rullan, Medicaid's director of public relations, replied that legislators, not the Medicaid staff, approved the changes.

"If there are issues about how this program is put together, remember who you are attacking,'' Rullan said. "These are people who answered 18,000 phone calls last week.''

The Department of Human Services has been handling Medicaid enrollment, but that duty is being turned over to the Division of Medicaid. DHS executive director Don Taylor said his agency will do all it can to answer Medicaid recipients' questions.

"Failure is not an option,'' Taylor said. "We are prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure this transition is a success.''

Health advocacy groups held separate public hearings Tuesday in Tupelo and Columbus, and are set to have other meetings Wednesday in Hattiesburg and Gulfport and Thursday in Greenville and Meridian.

The Hattiesburg meeting will take place at the Hattiesburg Cultural Center (723 N. Main Street) from 10am-11:30am.

The Gulfport meeting is being held in Gulfport at the Charles Walker Senior Center (4010 W. Beach Blvd.) from 2pm-3:30pm.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)