Politics

Kentucky’s new one-stop shop for health care and welfare services, Benefind, is causing customers confusion and remains plagued with long wait times, according to both the governor and health care advocates.

Earlier this year, Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration rolled Medicaid signups into the program as part of its efforts to dismantle Kynect, the state’s health care exchange established under the Affordable Care Act.

But that process is clogging up the works, a former health cabinet official says, leading to hours-long wait times, overwhelmed state workers and frustrated consumers. Health care advocates are concerned the situation will lead to a drop in the number of Kentuckians signing up for health insurance and other entitlement programs.

Bevin blamed the backlogs on former Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration, which created the original version of Benefind but hadn’t opened the program to the public before the end of his term.

“We were told that it was, it had been double-checked, it was user-ready and it was time to unveil it. You have found out firsthand that it’s not exactly as we expected it to be,” Bevin said in a Youtube video addressed to employees of the Department for Community Based Services, which manages the program.

“I know it’s frankly been scary in some measure, with just the onslaught of people that have been piling up, the amount of work that is at hand,” Bevin said in the video.

Benefind was launched at the end of February. In addition to Medicaid, it is the online portal for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Transitional Assistance Program and others.

The state is in the process of phasing out Kynectors — the people whom it hired to help Kentuckians navigate the new health programs. Those workers used to do basic case management and sign up new enrollees to Medicaid and qualified health plans via Kynect.

But now, those who want help accessing Benefind have to go through the Department for Community Based Services phone bank.

Cara Stewart, a law fellow with Equal Justice Center and Kynector, said it takes more than two hours to get through to DCBS over the phone.

“I currently have been on hold for two hours and 43 minutes,” Stewart said on Friday morning. “And I’m doing it because my clients don’t have a home phone, they don’t have a phone with unlimited minutes, they can’t do this and they have day jobs that don’t allow them to.”

DCBS phone banks also aren’t open for as many hours under Bevin’s watch.

Under the Beshear administration, DCBS workers were forced to work overtime to manage calls dealing with Kynect and Medicaid. Bevin rescinded that policy. In his budget address, the governor said the state employees were being overworked.

“Why don’t we just limit the actual hours in which you can call in? Have a cut-off time for hours you can call?” Bevin said.

DCBS caseworkers now manage the phone bank between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Former Health and Family Services Secretary Audrey Tayse Haynes, who helped establish Kynect as part of the Beshear administration, said Benefind wasn’t designed to be the portal for Medicaid applicants, which is why the system is now overwhelmed.

“It was never intended to accept Medicaid applications when you walk in the front door,” she said.

Although Benefind and Kynect shared many eligibility functions, Haynes said Benefind was designed to complement the health insurance exchange. For example, Benefind initially sent users to the Kynect website for any health insurance-related issues.

Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, said the Benefind backlogs are the result of the Bevin administration’s decision to roll Medicaid duties into the system.

“We’re trying to retrofit Benefind for Medicaid enrollment and it’s not built, it’s not designed for that,” she said. “And that’s why it’s not working.”

Beauregard estimated the changes have led to between 6,000 and 7,000 DCBS calls a day going unanswered.

“If you don’t have the workforce to provide enrollment assistance, fewer people will have access to coverage, fewer people will be able to complete the application and get through the system and keep their coverage,” she said.

Doug Hogan, a spokesman for Bevin’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the claim that Benefind wasn’t intended for Medicaid enrollment is inaccurate.

“Benefind is a $101.5 million system that was completely engineered by the previous administration,” Hogan said. “It was designed to be a one-stop shop for all services, including Medicaid.”

Bevin said by the end of this year, those who signed up for health insurance through Kynect would need to re-enroll through the federal exchange, healthcare.gov, if they still want insurance through the program.

Bevin is also working on a plan to “transform” Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion, which currently makes people up to 138 percent of the poverty line eligible for the program. He has offered few details about his plans.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.