Arkansas moves to simplify new Medicaid work requirement program

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas is making some changes to its new Medicaid work requirement program as thousands of residents lose coverage.

Medicaid recipients will be able to report the hours they work each month by telephone starting December 19, the Arkansas Department of Human Services announced Wednesday.

Advocates for the poor have criticized the agency for using an online portal as the main way to log their time, saying many low-income residents don’t have internet access and those that do get lost in the complex system.

Also, the state is launching an advertising campaign — including traditional and social media, online sites and local transportation organizations — to raise awareness about the reporting methods. And it will work with colleges to inform students that their school hours count toward meeting the requirement.

“We are six months into this new Medicaid demonstration program, but wanted take the time now to access what areas we need to shore up or improve,” said Cindy Gillespie, the agency’s director.

Consumer advocates, however, say that the efforts won’t make a big difference.

“This is a cosmetic change on the underlying policy that’s not working and is not going to work,” said Joan Alker, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

As the first state to mandate that Medicaid enrollees must work at least 80 hours a month, Arkansas is serving as a model for the rest of the nation.

The Trump administration has already granted five state requests to implement work requirements, though the rest are expected to begin next year. Another 10 states have applied to add a work mandate.

More than 12,100 people have lost coverage since Arkansas instituted the mandate in June, according to the agency’s October report, its most recent. Participants are dropped after three months of failing to report at least 80 hours of “community engagement,” which can be satisfied through work, education, volunteering and job searching.

The requirement currently applies mainly to non-disabled adults in their 30s and 40s who don’t have dependent children, but will expand to those ages 19 to 29 in January.

Another 6,000 residents are at risk of losing coverage this month because they have not met the mandate for two months. Only 1,525 recipients satisfied the work requirement.

Three consumer groups are suing the Trump administration seeking to halt the requirement in Arkansas.

The National Health Law Program, along with Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed the suit in US District Court in Washington DC in August. The suit charges that approval of Arkansas’ waiver runs counter to Medicaid’s objective of providing the poor with access to health care.