Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Train Wreck Continues: CHIP enrollment falls for fourth straight month

CHIP enrollment falls for fourth straight month
Critics blame new state contractor.
By Liz Austin


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The number of children enrolled in Texas' low-cost insurance program for low-income workers has fallen for the fourth straight month, with more than 9,000 kids leaving the rolls at the beginning of April, officials announced Tuesday.

More than 30,000 children have left the Children's Health Insurance Program since Dec. 1, with total enrollment dipping to about 292,700 as of April 1, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said.

That's the lowest number of participants since 2001, when the program was in its infancy.

Families in CHIP must renew their coverage every six months.

More than half of the children who left the rolls this month were cut because their families failed to pay a new enrollment fee of up to $50 that the state began collecting this year. The fees, which vary based on a family's income, replace monthly premiums created in 2003 and suspended a year later after thousands of families fell behind on payments.

Barbara Best, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund of Texas, blamed the enrollment drop on the new state contractor that began processing CHIP applications last fall.

She said families have told her that the Texas Access Alliance, a group of companies led by the technology consulting firm Accenture, has lost documents or failed to process them, and its operators have given conflicting answers to the same questions.

"The families that we've talked to . . . are being very diligent," she said. "They're doing their part, and they're sending in the information, but the information is not being received."

David McCurley, Texas Access Alliance's executive director, said the group is working on CHIP enrollment problems.

Commission spokeswoman Gail Randall said the state and the contractor aren't receiving many complaints about the problems Best described.

"We cannot solve a problem until we identify it," she said. "If they know who needs help, they need to tell us."

Last week, the commission delayed the rollout of another Accenture-led project until technical and customer service improvements could be made. That program involves a new computer system that lets people apply for benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families over the phone, online or in person.

Best said the state should likewise stop cutting children from CHIP because the two programs' problems are so similar.

"This program should be growing and not shrinking," she said. "We need to act immediately to prevent more children from losing coverage."

Last month, the state tried to stem the loss of coverage by reaching out to families who hadn't turned in renewal paperwork and extending the deadline to do so.

On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins unveiled a $3 million outreach campaign for CHIP and Children's Medicaid, which also has seen large drops in enrollment in recent months.

The campaign will begin in May and include radio ads in English and Spanish, messages on buses and bus benches and ads on Spanish-language television stations.