Disruption to Kentucky Medicaid, Benefits Causes Uproar

State newspapers have been sharply critical of Governor Matt Bevin's last-minute changes to the Benefind system, which was designed to work alongside Kynect to integrate benefits, not replace it to administer Medicaid.

Two years after Kentucky received national headlines for one of the most successful rollouts of the Affordable Care Act—thanks to its homegrown insurance exchange, Kynect—the state is making headlines again.

But not the good kind.

New Republican Governor Matt Bevin, an opponent of "Obamacare," has vowed to undo Kynect and in so doing appears to have put a wrench in a related, $100 million online benefit system that his predecessor created to integrate the administration of health coverage, food assistance, and other benefits.

The March 1, 2016, rollout of the system, called Benefind, has been called a “disaster” by some of Kentucky’s strongest healthcare advocates, and today a searing editorial in a state newspaper, the Lexington Herald Leader, blamed Bevin and his administration for blundered launch.

As planned by former Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat who has continued to comment on healthcare matters since leaving office, Benefind and Kynect would work in sync, and the well-oiled 500-person staff of the health exchange—called kynectors—would be able to move back and forth to help state beneficiaries with Medicaid issues.

But these staff are now shut out of Benefind, reducing the corps of people able to assist the public, apparently when they are most needed. Instead, state workers without experience in helping the public navigate health coverage selections are taking calls from outraged Medicaid recipients.

First, many of these clients have learned their cases were switched into Benefind without their knowledge and second, their coverage was inexplicably cut off. In many cases, benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were canceled, too.

The Lexington Herald Leader asked whether this was a purposeful effort by the Bevin administration to cut off coverage and aid, or a colossal failure brought on by last-minute changes to Benefind to disconnect 2 systems that had been designed to work together. According to news reports, overwhelmed state workers cannot keep up with the calls, and legal services offices are in similar shape.

“Telephoning a state hotline is useless; a recorded message says there’s a backlog of calls followed by a dead line,” the editorial states. “The hotline phones are answered only from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., precluding most working people. Those who go to local community-based services offices are finding all-day waits to talk to someone.”

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Bevin officials initially disputed the seriousness of the problem, then tried to blame Beshear’s outgoing team. “We are devoting all of our resources to making sure we get this transition on as smooth a path as possible,” cabinet chief of staff Steve Davis told the paper. “This is a serious situation.”

Bevin himself later taped a YouTube message to state workers charged with handling the angry phone calls to calm the storm.

Emily Beauregard of Kentucky Voices for Health said the problem comes from a last-minute effort by the Bevin team to “retrofit” Benefind to handle Medicaid enrollment, something that has been done by Kynect staff. “It’s not designed for that,” she told Louisville Public Radio. “That’s why it’s not working.”

Meanwhile, the Courier-Journal reports that the official in charge of handling complaints from the public tried to warn the governor’s top aides he feared some beneficiaries would become violent, endangering state workers.

Norman “Chip” Ward, executive director of the Cabinet ombudsman’s office, offered that warning on March 21, 2016, and was fired the same day, although no reason was given.