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Medicaid Applicants Outpace Private Insurance Registrants In Tri-County Area

Apr 16, 2014

A physician sees a patient at Mountain Family Health Centers. The organization's clinics are seeing 150 new Medicaid patients a month.
Credit Mountain Family Health Centers

Last month, several people raced to sign up for health insurance before the March 31st deadline. Many of those patients qualified for the taxpayer-funded Medicaid program. Turns out, more people signed up for Medicaid than for private insurance in the tri-county area that includes Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle Counties. Now, doctor’s offices that handle these patients are trying to keep up. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

It’s a busy day at Mountain Family Health Centers in Glenwood Springs. The clinic primarily serves low-income patients. Susan Orcutt is a Nurse Practitioner. She’s working with a patient suffering from a sore shoulder.

Mountain Family is a Federally Qualified Health Center that gets grants from the government and reimbursements from programs like Medicaid. They operate on a sliding fee scale and run clinics from Basalt to Rifle.

CEO Ross Brooks says recently, they’ve seen an increase in patients at all of their Western Slope clinics.

"We were ready for this. There are some strains, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t strains. We run busy clinics and those clinics are busy all of the time," he says.

He says they’re seeing 150 new Medicaid patients a month. The organization saw the growth coming. Starting in 2011, Mountain Family started expanding, adding on to existing clinics and, most recently, opening a new clinic in Edwards.

"We’re also hiring more staff. We’ve grown to about 120 staff now. We were 60 staff five years ago. So, we’ve added doctors, dentists, nurses, front desk staff, billing folks, IT professionals, suits, like myself, that go to meetings all day. We’ve grown the infrastructure so that we can serve the growing number of lives that need health care."

Kathleen Lyons handles public assistance, like Medicaid, for Eagle and Pitkin Counties. 

"We had anticipated quite a growth in both counties, so that’s what we were preparing for," she says.

When the insurance marketplace opened last October, many people first applied for Medicaid. If they made too much and didn’t qualify, they were sent to the online exchange to find a private plan.

The number of Medicaid applicants in Pitkin and Eagle Counties jumped from about 25 a month, before the exchange opened to 100 a month in February and March of this year. Lyons saw a spike just before the deadline.

"The last week of March we actually received 226 applications."

Since last fall, about 4700 people enrolled in Medicaid for the first time in our tri-county area. Compare that to about 4200 who signed up for plans on the state exchange. Unlike private insurance, people can still apply for Medicaid. And, Lyons expects another jump.

"In our resort communities now, here in April, the mountains will be closing down. And, so we will have people who may have had insurance during the season or may have had income that put them over the limit for Medicaid. But now, in April and May, they will likely become eligible for Medicaid."

Back at Mountain Family Health Center, Doctor Chris Tonozzi is visiting with the mother of a two-week old baby. Doctors here see 25 to 30 patients a day, partly because most doctors offices don’t take people with Medicaid due to the program’s dismal reimbursement.

"I usually come in around 7:30 and I’m usually here until 6. And, when it runs well it’s a fine-tuned machine, it takes a bunch of teamwork," says Tonozzi.

He says his patients are relatively complicated because if they lack insurance, it’s usually a more complex case. In 2012, nearly half of Mountain Family’s patient load was without insurance. This year, it’s projected to shrink to 30 percent.

"Really those changes have been helpful in allowing me to see more patients because what I’ve noticed, is more patients have Medicaid. And, if they have Medicaid instead of uninsured, things happen a lot more easily. We don’t have to fret about the cost of every medicine, X Ray, and whether or not a specialist is going to see them, or not. In these parts, Medicaid’s good insurance for people and makes the system work a lot better when they have Medicaid."

Mountain Family CEO Ross Brooks says it’s good for patients to move from being uninsured to getting covered, no matter if it’s through Medicaid or private insurance.

"We desire as a society, I think, and as a medical neighborhood to get the prevention we need, so we can live healthy, happy lives. When you’re uninsured, you’re forced to wait a lot of the time," he says.

Still, some republican state lawmakers say the larger Medicaid patient pool is a huge burden on taxpayers. Senator Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs told the Denver Post the statewide Medicaid figures show the Affordable Care Act was more about expanding government funded health care than getting more people covered by private health insurance.