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Kiosks helping handle Obamacare surge

BY DONNIE JOHNSTON

The expected influx of new participants should Virginia expand Medicaid services under the federal Affordable Care Act is forcing Culpeper Human Services—and other local social services offices—to take a “serve yourself” approach.

Instead of automatically seeing an eligibility worker, new clients now are being asked to use computers in a lobby kiosk to determine eligibility, fill out necessary forms and apply for benefits.

The “do-it-yourself” system is designed to take some pressure off the Human Services staff should new standards make many more people eligible for government health insurance in 2014.

“If expanded Medicaid is adopted, the state is expecting about 450,000 more people to be eligible for Medicaid,” said Culpeper Human Services Director Lisa Peacock. “In Culpeper, we’re expecting about 5,000 more participants.”

That’s a lot of new applications to process and cases to review annually.

State officials hope that a computer program called “Common Help” will make the job easier. This customer portal, which can be accessed through Virginia.gov on any computer, will guide clients through the application process.

For Human Services’ many clients who do not have access to the Internet, the new computers in the building’s lobby should be ready for use no later than the first of December.

Until then, Culpeper clients may use a friend’s home computer or ones that are available at the Career Resource Center downtown or the Culpeper County Library in the Southgate Shopping Center.

Peacock said Human Services had contemplated placing computer kiosks in several public places, but decided against it because there would be no firewall protection.

How the new in-house do-it-yourself application system will work is uncertain, but Teresa Jenkins, who oversees Culpeper’s Medicaid program, says that so far there have been few problems with the online phase of the program.

“We started accepting online applications last July and last month we had 82,” Jenkins said, adding that Human Services has been accepting online applications for day care services for more than a year “and it works well.”

Aside from lack of Internet access, the biggest problem many online clients have had is remembering usernames and passwords.

“Some people are really struggling with that,” Jenkins said.

Common Help is set up to explain state benefits programs to clients, but Peacock worries that some applicants won’t discover some of the local programs that are available, such as assistance with winter heating bills.

“The biggest concern I have is that we’re taking the personal aspect out of [the application process],” Peacock said.

Jenkins agrees.

“Our goal is to keep the human aspect in all this,” she said.

Both agree that having applicants sign up for benefits at a lobby computer will be of only minimal assistance to the Human Services staff, especially since a worker may need to be stationed there to help clients, some of whom have little education, navigate the online program.

“Workers still have to verify all the information and every application—whether the client is eligible or not—must be processed,” Jenkins said. “This will likely only eliminate a few minutes of typing.”

Still, if Virginia adopts the expanded Medicaid program and the influx of new clients is as heavy as anticipated, even a few minutes of typing may be a big help.

Peacock said her office will somehow manage accepting and verifying as many as 5,000 new applicants, but wonders where that many new people will find doctors in 2014.

“That’s going to be a huge problem,” the Culpeper Human Services director said. “It has been hard getting doctors to accept Medicaid patients up to now. I don’t know how [the town’s doctors] can handle an influx of 5,000 new patients.”

Last year, the federal government made more than $30 million in Medicaid payments to Culpeper County health care providers, Peacock said.

Under Obamacare guidelines, which would allow a family of four to make almost $32,000 a year ($15,400 for an individual) and still qualify for benefits, that payment amount could quadruple.

“Right now, everyone is just trying to work out the kinks and get prepared,” Jenkins said.

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