In a repurposed waiting room at the DePaul Community Health Center on Carrollton Avenue, four Medicaid navigators in blue polo shirts each settled into a corner with their laptops one recent morning, ready to help people sign up for health insurance.
DePaul’s navigators are trained to walk Louisianians through the paperwork necessary to getting and staying insured through Medicaid — the federally and state-funded public insurance program aimed mostly at low-income residents — or the federal insurance marketplace. These days, they’re rarely in one spot, traveling to community clinics and social services centers, barbershops, churches, and restaurants across Orleans and Jefferson parishes, said Chenita LeBlanc, who oversees the navigator program at DePaul.
Need free help with Medicaid or health insurance enrollment?
Health insurance navigators with DePaul Community Health Centers can be reached at (504) 482-2080 ext. 2246.
You can also call navigators with the Southwest Louisiana Area Health Education Center at 1-800-435-2432 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The number for Louisiana Medicaid customer service is 1-888-342-6207.
“We find out where people are, and we go to them,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc anticipates the navigators will only get busier this summer as Louisiana embarks on a mammoth effort to check the eligibility of the state’s roughly 2 million Medicaid recipients — about 40% of the state’s population – for the first time in three years.
Louisiana paused eligibility screening — which is usually done annually and is meant to assess whether someone meets the program’s income requirements — at the beginning of the pandemic due to a federal policy that barred states from taking people off the public health insurance rolls. Since then, the state has added more than 400,000 people to its Medicaid program, which aims to serve low-income Louisianians.
But the federal policy expired in March. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been culled from Medicaid rolls in other states. Many of those recipients were removed for procedural issues, according to news reports.
In Louisiana, the Medicaid “unwinding” began in April; the state health department plans to stagger eligibility checks in monthly batches for about a year. The state’s first batch of 162,000 eligibility checks found about 45% were automatically eligible for renewal, while the other 55% were sent renewal packets to update their eligibility information, state Medicaid Executive Director Tara LeBlanc told Medicaid advocates at a roundtable in May, statistics Verite also confirmed with the Health Department.
The packets ask Medicaid recipients to verify details including contact information, income and jobs and household members. People from the first group who are found ineligible will lose coverage at the beginning of July.
The Health Department has run an extensive outreach campaign, paying for billboards and ads, sending pink letters reminding recipients to update their contact information and contracting with groups like DePaul.
Medicaid policy advocates, like Courtney Foster with the Louisiana Budget Project, are keeping a close eye on whether eligible recipients in Louisiana slip through the cracks and lose coverage over paperwork discrepancies, such as the state not having their current information on file: “That is the whole worry about the unwinding,” Foster said.
Some 280,000 to 350,000 Louisianians could lose coverage through the unwinding, the state Health Department has estimated, though many of those people can be expected to end up requalifying for Medicaid.
DePaul’s efforts are targeted to Orleans and Jefferson parishes; the Southwest Louisiana Area Health Education Center also has a federal grant for navigators across the state.
The navigators are trying to reach as many of those people as possible, helping eligible recipients avoid being kicked out of the program, walking people through the state’s Medicaid web portal and talking on the phone with customer service reps for the federal insurance marketplace. Some recipients bring letters they’ve received from Medicaid to the navigators, who can explain what the missives mean. Others line up at sites as early as 5:30 in the morning to await help, said Chenita LeBlanc with the DePaul health centers.
A three-year federal grant that runs until August 2024 funds six of DePaul’s navigators, with a state grant specific to the unwinding funding another nine people, LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc is working on “creative scheduling,” she said, to ensure enough navigators are available as eligibility letters make their way to recipients. The process can seem never-ending, as people move and change phone numbers.
At DePaul, navigators are also focusing on specific populations: working with the Ozanam Inn to help people experiencing homelessness; going to health centers on intake days for obstetrics patients to target mothers who would also be eligible for 12 months of Medicaid postpartum coverage; and talking to Dillard University students who are aging out of their parents’ health plans, for example. Several navigators are bilingual, and the program also pays for live interpreter services.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the DePaul Community Health Center as the DePaul Community Health Clinic and health insurance navigator Laurie McNab as a Medicaid navigator. The story has been updated.
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