State Medicaid agency expecting tidal wave of applicants in coming weeks

SEATTLE -- Health care coverage has become a major concern for many Americans as more people are not only getting sick from COVID-19, but also losing their employer-issued health care when losing their jobs.

With an avalanche of new unemployment claims in the state, Washington's Health Care Authority is preparing for a major increase in Medicaid enrollment, known as Apple Health.

The state agency has already seen a slight uptick. Tracking people who have not accessed Medicaid in the past six months, between March 23 and March 31, the state saw an average of 577 new enrollees each day likely tied to coronavirus impacts. The first week of April, the number of new enrollees nearly doubled to an average of 1,037 each day.

But with hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians filing for unemployment the past few weeks, a tsunami is coming for Medicaid coverage.

"For the major uptick unemployment has seen in the past two weeks, 134,000 new applications two weeks ago and 180,000 last week, that's sort of the marker that tells us our trend wave may still be coming in the next two weeks," said Taylor Linke, state director for Medicaid eligibility.

Linke said the delay is because Medicaid is downstream from unemployment as many people still have health insurance coverage for the remainder of the month after losing their job.

Compared with the Employment Security Department, the state's Health Care Authority does not expect to experience the same delays in getting benefits because Linke said the application process will instantly give you the result online. Like with unemployment benefits, eligibility is expanding near-daily because of the outbreak and qualification changes happening at the state and federal level.

For instance, the federal government recently increased its match to help state's pay for Medicaid coverage, but there is concern in many states that it won't be enough to help shoulder the financial burden expected with increasing unemployment.

Washington's Apple Health already covers 1.8 million Washingtonians, about a quarter of the state's population. With some forecasted unemployment estimates reaching 20 and 30 percent of the workforce, the number Washington could expect to cover with Medicaid as the economic pain of the outbreak deepens is much higher.

"I think we are working all angles but just from a personal perspective, I worry" about the finances, Linke said. "I know that there are so many people who are dependent upon the coverage options that we provide and I know that we are doing everything we can working from the standpoint of: Cover as many lives as you can for as long as you can."

Linke said she did appreciate the enhanced federal match under the circumstances but believes there is probably more that the federal government can do from a financial perspective, especially as the impact of the outbreak widens.

Economic stimulus checks expected in the mail, in addition to the extra $600 in federal unemployment benefits some may receive, will not be counted as income in determining whether someone qualifies for free coverage under Medicaid.

For those who have not experienced a life change but are not covered, April 8 was supposed to be the last day of open enrollment in the state health care exchange, but because of the outbreak it has been extended for an additional month in case uninsured Washingtonians are considering getting coverage.