Medicaid rolls continue to grow, but at slower rate

Health care » Officials are hopeful -- but unsure -- an economic turnaround is under way.
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Jobless Utahns are continuing to enroll in Medicaid, but at the slowest rate in more than two years.

Utah's Medicaid rolls grew by 405 people in April, the smallest monthly increase since March 2008, the start of an unprecedented growth streak for the low-income health program. Unemployment has also slowed, which economists believe is an early sign of economic recovery.

But health officials warn not to read too much into April's numbers, which could be an anomaly. "It's just too early to tell," said Utah Department of Health spokeswoman Kolbi Young.

Murkier still are economic predictions for the health care industry, which has weathered the recession better than most. Utah's health care firms added to their payrolls in recent years while most industries shed jobs.

Still, "this has not been a good year overall financially for hospitals," said Jill Vicory, spokeswoman for the Utah Hospitals & Health Systems Association. "The mild winter gave us a mild flu season, business overall is down and things are still not looking great."

Inpatient hospitalizations and emergency room visits in Utah dipped over three years, starting in 2006 with the sharpest decline in 2008, said Keely Cofrin Allen, statistics director for the state health department.

"We know that during tough times, people put off elective surgery and filling prescriptions," Allen said.

Families also "pushed the pause button" on having babies, shown by a drop in deliveries at Intermountain Healthcare hospitals, said Matt Weed, director of planning and research for the hospital chain.

But admissions in other divisions are mixed. Inpatient hospitalizations were up 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2010, compared with the same period last year, said Weed. But emergency room visits are down.

"We really don't expect Medicaid enrollment and unemployment to start to drop until the second half of this year," Weed said.

What that bodes for specialty care centers, like the Moran Eye Center and Huntsman Cancer Center, is unknown.

The University of Utah's hospitals and clinics report surgeries are down this year, but outpatient visits have grown 2 to 3 percent.

"We haven't seen major dips in any of our service lines, except with elective procedures like plastic surgery and fee-for-service care like eye exams," said U. Health Sciences spokesman Christopher Nelson.

Easing Medicaid growth would provide some relief to depleted state coffers.

Medicaid enrollment in Utah and across the country soared during the recession as laid-off workers lost their employer-sponsored benefits. Utah's own rolls jumped nearly 19 percent from June 2008 to June 2009, an increase second only to Maryland, according to a February report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Steady growth persisted through 2010, slowing in April at 213,550 beneficiaries.

Food stamps decline

For the first time since September 2007, the number of Utahns relying on food stamps to help feed their families dipped slightly by 182 households. Until now, numbers have grown steadily by at least 1 or 2 percent each month. Food stamps provide financial assistance to low-income households to buy food.