Kheli Muhammad was trying to schedule a routine pediatrician’s appointment last summer when she discovered that her 2-year-old son, who has a congenital heart disorder, had been kicked off the Medicaid rolls.
The 30-year-old mother of two boys was stunned.
“It is written in stone that he’s covered,” Muhammad said of Samad, who qualifies for Medicaid based on his serious medical condition, not the family’s income level. “He’s pacemaker-dependent . . . [H]is heart will not beat without a pacemaker.”
But the heartbeat of the fragile little Samad was clearly not a priority for welfare officials, who informed Muhammad that she had failed to renew his benefits – even though she said she had not received renewal paperwork in the mail – and that she’d have to reapply.
It took the frantic mother a week to get her son – who has frequent doctor’s appointments and needs special medications – back on the books.
“I didn’t even get a notice that he would be canceled,” said Muhammad, who lives in Overbrook with Samad and her husband and an older son. “Nothing had been sent to my house. Because of my son’s condition, it’s not something that would have slipped by.”
Samad Muhammad is not the region’s only kid to wake up without health-care coverage in recent months. At least 89,000 children vanished from the state Medicaid rolls between August and January – roughly 25,000 of them in Philadelphia, according to the state Department of Public Welfare.
Most of those kids – about 71,000 statewide – were removed as part of a massive effort to clear a backlog of recipients whose paperwork was not up to date, according to DPW spokeswoman Anne Bale. Medicaid recipients must file paperwork to renew their eligibility every six months, upon receiving documents from DPW.
But many of the children were wrongfully kicked off, and 23,180 have been reinstated in the program so far.
The drastic swing in Medicaid enrollments has prompted a furious debate in Harrisburg over Republican Gov. Corbett’s budget proposal for next year, which includes a $629 million cut in social services while providing tax breaks for businesses.
Corbett’s top public-welfare official has said he simply is trying to get ineligible people out of the program. Critics say Corbett is prepared to cut welfare costs by any means necessary.
“There’s a reduction in revenues, and the wealthiest folk in the commonwealth get tax breaks and poorest folk get jammed, and jammed needlessly,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat and frequent Corbett critic.
Medicaid is a state- and federally funded program that provides health-care coverage for low-income people and for those with qualifying medical disabilities. Medicaid accounts for about $19 billion of the Welfare Department’s $28 billion budget in the current fiscal year, according to DPW data.
The fall-off in Medicaid enrollments started last summer, when a large number of families were sent renewal paperwork and instructions to respond within 15 days. According to advocates, it appeared that if the paperwork was not then received and processed in time, those enrolled were dropped – even if the delay was the fault of DPW. And some families, like Muhammad’s, have said they never got any renewal paperwork.
‘War on poor folk’
During a budget hearing in Harrisburg in February, lawmakers from both parties questioned Corbett’s welfare secretary, Gary Alexander, about the children taken off Medicaid. Alexander said officials had simply reviewed a backlog of cases, which are supposed to get semiannual reviews, to ensure that no one was improperly receiving benefits.
“This is a procedure and a law and a regulation that’s been in place for many years. All we’re doing is enforcing it,” Alexander told the lawmakers.
DPW declined to make Alexander available for an interview. Instead, the Daily News was referred to spokeswoman Bale.
She said that DPW has not been trying to remove the eligible from Medicaid.
“We have asked caseworkers or the people who have been wrongfully kicked off [to reach out]. We have continually asked to get this evidence and we don’t get it,” Bale said. “If anyone does feel they are wrongfully removed from Medicaid, they can appeal our decision.”
Bale could not provide many details for why children had been removed from Medicaid. Legitimate reasons would include a change in the family’s income, a move out of state, aging out or death. According to data provided by DPW, most of those reinstated on Medicaid had been dropped for “failure to provide information.”