Health Care

‘It was just terrible’: After years of Kansas Medicaid complaints, change is coming

After years of criticism over delays and mishandling of Medicaid applications at a centralized call center, the state of Kansas is sending more workers to help people directly, face-to-face.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly announced this week that Kansans will soon be able to walk into regional offices again and get help with Kansas Medicaid, or KanCare, applications for themselves or loved ones.

“That sounds great because that needs to be done,” said Sandra Richardson of Roeland Park, who struggled to get answers when her husband’s KanCare coverage was jeopardized last year.

She was at a nursing home visiting him Tuesday when she heard the news.

“The way they had it set up was just terrible. You couldn’t get ahold of anyone, and if you did, they didn’t know any of your information and they didn’t know what to tell you.”

The restoration of walk-in help is part of Kelly’s ongoing efforts to unwind changes that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback made to the Medicaid application process — changes that created problems documented in previous stories by The Star.

Those changes included switching to a new computer system in late 2015 and then funneling all applications through a single KanCare Clearinghouse in Topeka starting in 2016. The clearinghouse and a customer service call center were staffed largely by a private contractor, Maximus.

The rollout of the new computer system was rocky, and the performance of Maximus has drawn criticism from patient advocates and lawmakers for years. Long delays in getting applications approved and errors in processing renewals became the norm.

Nursing homes, which rely heavily on Medicaid reimbursements for residents who run out of money, reported major financial struggles. The number of seniors covered dropped even as the state’s population aged, leading advocates to worry that people were going without needed care.

Shortly after Kelly took office she released a budget that called for hiring 313 state workers to take back from Maximus the most complicated Medicaid applications: those for long-term nursing home beds or in-home care for disabled or frail people. Those applications require lots of financial documents to prove people qualify.

Kelly’s administration announced Monday it would send some of those Kansas Department of Health and Environment workers to 17 drop-in centers across the state — including one in Overland Park and one in Kansas City, Kansas.

Those centers are operated by the state Department for Children and Families.

“I’ve always believed that our DCF offices can be an important connection point for Kansans who need services,” said the department’s secretary, Laura Howard. “This new partnership is a first step in providing a more efficient experience for those who need assistance with the complicated KanCare application process.”

The workers will train with DCF staff and will be available to meet with people struggling to navigate the KanCare application process in the middle of next year.

“We know this is an important step in helping Kansans connect with services that are vital to their well-being,” Howard said.

Richardson said she’s eager to return to the pre-clearinghouse days when she had a specific caseworker who handled her husband’s case and she could schedule a visit to the Johnson County office to talk through any problems.

When she called the clearinghouse last year to try to figure out why her husband’s coverage had changed, she got no help. The issue wasn’t resolved until The Star reported on it.

“The guy that I talked to, I said, ‘Do you have my husband’s file in front of you? And he said no,’” she said. “How can you help me if you don’t have his file?”

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.