Applying for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) isn't as hard as it's said to be, a customer satisfaction survey shows.
A majority of Utah applicants for public health benefits say forms are easily understood and quickly processed within a week to 30 days. Those asked to show additional proof of eligibility, such as pay stubs or bank statements, indicated they had "small" or "no" problems doing so. And though a slim majority – 44 percent of Medicaid enrollees and 62 percent of CHIP enrollees – had trouble contacting an eligibility worker, they say they were treated with courtesy and respect.
"The system is functioning as it's intended," said the survey's author, Keely Cofrin Allen at the state Department of Health. "Applicants are getting their questions answered, they're getting enrolled when they need to and they don't see the process as burdensome."
Conducted last spring, the poll of just under 500 applicants reflects favorably on Utah's Department of Workforce Services, which took control of Medicaid and CHIP eligibility in 2008. The findings run counter to employee complaints of low morale and concerns voiced by low-income advocates about poor customer service.
Workforce Services inherited Medicaid and CHIP eligibility just as the recession hit and scores of unemployed applied for aid. From January 2008 to January 2012, enrollment in Utah's health safety nets swelled 57 percent from 159,000 to about 251,000.
Meanwhile, the number of eligibility workers shrank from 1,094 to 808, and the budget was slashed $21 million.
Former Workforce Services Executive Director Kristen Cox won praise for the austerity measures a response to legislative threats to privatize eligibility functions. But they coincided with an uptick in errors and employee unrest.
Advocates say the poll is encouraging. But they say they continue to hear complaints about the application process.
For high-risk families, particularly citizen children of undocumented immigrants, "we still see barriers and maybe a need for greater cultural competency," said Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project.
Minor problems will soon be magnified come 2014 when, under federal health reform, virtually all Utahns must have health coverage. Whether Utah buys off on the now optional provision of the law to expand Medicaid remains to be seen.
Regardless, families will need help navigating different private and public options, Hilman said. Her non-profit is among a handful in Utah filling that role for families, but on a shoestring budget.
Utah is eligible for federal consumer assistance funding, but has twice shied from applying for the $250,000 grants.