Health care coverage for all Iowans difficult to attain

Many uninsured can't find care

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About this project:, the Burlington Hawk Eye, The Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Dubuque Telegraph Herald worked together this summer to report on the need for health care facing Iowans who do not have insurance. They reviewed more than two dozen documents and interviewed two dozen people.

Cynthia Houston didn’t panic when she lost her job at the Mount Pleasant school district in 2008. She looked for another job and paid the extra money to keep insurance through COBRA.

She found work but couldn’t afford insurance there. That was when she had a breakdown.

“I guess you’re in that nowhere land of: you don’t really qualify for help with this, you’re not old enough to get offered (insurance) for senior citizens,” said Houston, 60, of Winfield. “You’re kind of out there on your own.”

She eventually found help. But state efforts to help Iowans without health insurance pay for doctor visits and other medical care fail to reach all who could use the assistance, a review by five Iowa news organizations of the state’s health care delivery systems for uninsured Iowans reveals.

Geographic limits ensure that one program to which Houston was referred — IowaCare — does not reach all Iowans who need it, even though it is considered to be a last resort for Iowans ineligible for other programs that fund accessible, affordable health care.

One in 10 Iowans lives without health insurance. Estimates range from 312,600 by the Kaiser Family Foundation to 342,000 by the U.S. Census Bureau. They live in a state where some health care professionals predict fewer available primary care providers to handle growing demand for health care from aging baby boomers, working people with inadequate insurance coverage and others entering the health care market.

“It seems to me, from my perspective, to be a perfect storm,” Wendy Gray, executive director of Free Clinics of Iowa, said about that anticipated convergence of trends.

The health care workforce, which includes specialists, physician assistants, nurses and others, is a concern, said Dr. Stephen Eckstat, board president of Free Clinics of Iowa and CEO at Mercy Clinics Inc. of Des Moines.

But, he said, he expects Iowa to have enough primary care doctors, with Des Moines University and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics graduating them and the doctors staying here.

The most serious concern, Eckstat said, is that people increasingly cannot afford insurance. “The crisis is financial,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncompensated care.”

Free clinic numbers

Free Clinics of Iowa’s network of 33 free medical clinics dealt with more than 13,600 patient visits in each of the past two years, up from 13 clinics handling 5,018 clinic visits in 2005. It did not count the number of patients making the visits but about 11,000 visits each of the past two years were by people lacking health insurance, the organization’s records show.

In Cedar Rapids, a community with two hospital systems, a federally subsidized community health clinic and a reputation for low-cost, high-quality care, some patients fall through the cracks and often rely on free health clinics for basic care.

Demand for the Iowa City Free Medical Clinic’s services has risen sharply over the last two decades, despite University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics being in the same city. In fiscal year 1991, almost 3,700 visits were made to the free clinic. Last year, that number had jumped to more than 6,200.

“We see uninsured patients, as well as patients who have insurance that excludes certain conditions, or policies with an extremely high deductible,” Jennifer Miller, the clinic’s case manager, said.

Unconventional areas

The Free Clinics of Iowa network’s small clinics, sometimes operating only three to five hours a week in church basements, community centers and other available buildings, aren’t confined to traditionally low-income areas.

Gray referenced clinics in West Des Moines, where the median household annual income was $63,978 and 6.1 percent of the people lived below the poverty level during the 2010 census, and Waukee, medium household income of $74,413 and 2.8 percent below the poverty level.

“Neither one of those communities would show up as underserved and underemployed,” Gray said. “But I can tell you, those clinics are busy.”

So are places like UI Hospitals and Clinics. A 2011 report from the Iowa Hospital Association shows the medical complex served almost 380,000 “community benefit” patients last year. That includes those with uncovered Medicaid and Medicare costs, patients who didn’t pay in full for their services and more than 12,000 “traditional charity care” patients.

“University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is committed to treating all Iowans, regardless of their ability to pay for their care,” hospital spokesman Tom Moore said.

“Certainly, people are accessing health care if they’re not insured,” Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, said.

But all health care cannot be free. Health care providers earn salaries and supplies and facilities cost money.

Assistance programs

State assistance programs that help people who do not have insurance pay medical bills fall under three programs:

  • Medicaid, available to low-income and some disabled Iowans but also some with extremely high medical bills.
  •  Healthy and Well Kids in Iowa, or Hawk-I, and a Medicaid expansion program in the Children’s Health Insurance Program for Iowa that covers children of low-income families.
  •  IowaCare, for those ineligible for Medicaid or Hawk-I.

Almost one of every four Iowans is expected to use Medicaid this fiscal year, which started July 1 and runs through June 30. That is 698,000 Iowans in a program on track to pay almost $4 billion to 38,000 health care providers this budget year. The state will provide one-half of that money, the federal government the other half. (story continues below chart)

Enrollment in Iowa’s Medicaid program increased 5.4 percent in fiscal 2011 from the previous year. At least the increase slowed down. It was 9.4 percent in fiscal 2010 from the previous year, the human services department reports.

Expanding Medicaid in Iowa to include more patients would increase enrollment in the program about 25 percent, from 110,000 people to 130,000, the Department of Human Services predicted in a report it compiled for this budget year.

Expansion is being discussed, and people enrolled in IowaCare would be part of it, moving into Medicaid for full benefits there.

Future on hold

Despite moves to reach more people, Iowa is in a waiting game when designing a way to cover the costs of uninsured Iowans’ health care because of uncertainty over whether the state will expand Medicaid.

That expansion is called for under the Affordable Care Act, known better as ObamaCare.

The law allowed the federal government to take Medicaid funding away from states that did not expand coverage to more people. But while famously upholding the law during the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court said states are not obligated to expand. That led Gov. Terry Branstad to say Iowa should not expand because of costs to a stressed federal budget.

But the system Iowa has been planning, to date to increase coverage opportunities is based on expanding Medicaid. The reason: the Affordable Care Act has been law since 2010, and has deadlines for completing action toward full implementation at the beginning of 2014.

The state is using IowaCare, which started in 2005 as a replacement for Iowa’s old indigent care program, as its bridge to 2014. (story continues below chart)

The decision to do that was made two years ago, when the program needed to be renewed through 2013. Having IowaCare, despite limitations in that system, kept Iowa from having to start from scratch. But it is to expire at the end of next year, with no other substitute plan for covering those receiving it now.

Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has said he would work with Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act but first would give states waivers that allow them to opt out of requirement of the act. President Barack Obama would continue to implement the law he worked hard to get passed and was upheld in the Supreme Court.

Branstad, a Republican, is waiting for November’s federal election outcome to determine how to proceed.

“While we don’t know the outcome yet, we’re prepared for either scenario,” his press aide, Tim Albrecht, said.

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, the ranking minority member of the House Human Resources Committee, said she expects Medicaid expansion, which she supports, to get a full airing in the next legislative session.

“As we implement the Affordable Care Act in Iowa and we expand Medicaid, we will begin getting to more and more of these groups that we need to get to,” she said.

The Affordable Care Act orders states to provide Medicaid to people living below 133 percent of the poverty level. That 133 percent level is $23,050 in annual income for one person. It is $30,657 for people living in a family of four.

IowaCare limitations

The IowaCare program provides health care coverage for Iowans living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $46,100. Most patients in IowaCare get their care free, although some pay a portion of their costs on a sliding scale.

The program has more limitations – on medications, durable medical equipment and mental health, for example – than the Medicaid program.

Moreover, it never was established to serve as a be-all, catch-all program for uninsured Iowans. It replaced the Iowa Indigent Care Program, through which all counties but Polk sent low-income patients to UI Hospitals for free health care. Polk County had a program that sent patients to Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines.

IowaCare started with centers at the UI and Broadlawns, then expanded to include hospitals in Waterloo and Sioux City in October 2010, mainly because the long travel to Iowa City or Des Moines made the program impractical for people in many parts of the state. Eight centers exist now.

Dubuque’s Crescent Community Health Center, which started providing primary IowaCare services for eight northeast Iowa counties on Dec. 1, served more than 700 IowaCare patients during the first three months of 2012.

“We’ve been pretty busy with IowaCare,” said Julie Woodyard, Crescent’s director.

Gauging success

The Iowa Public Policy Center is studying the impact the Affordable Care Act will have on health care delivery. While Medicaid and Hawk-I have their established limits, attention has been given to the IowaCare program.

The UI center found problems when it surveyed 1,708 IowaCare patients in winter 2010-11.

Two of every five patients needing specialty care, for instance, had instances of being unable to see anyone at UI Hospitals and Clinics or Broadlawns, the survey showed.

On the other hand, the survey showed a majority of the people received preventive care, seen as a key to reducing health care costs.

“The way I’ve sort of come to think about this is that, for about a third of the people, the program seems to work really well, and provides excellent care,” said Iowa Public Policy Center Director Peter Damiano.

“For about a third of them it works pretty well,” said Damiano, a UI professor of preventive and community dentistry. “It’s not great, it doesn’t do everything, but it’s certainly a whole lot better than having nothing.

“Then for a third of them, it might be better than nothing but it’s not, at least in their view, a whole lot better than nothing.”

The main reasons for not getting routine care when needed were transportation or travel distances to care centers, the inability to afford care, the lack of IowaCare coverage or trouble getting an appointment at UI Hospitals and Clinics or Broadlawns, the Public Policy Center study found.

“I think you have to take those numbers within the context of how the program is structured,” Jennifer Vermeer, director of the Iowa Medicaid program, said.

Only four centers provided IowaCare services when the survey was done, plus their volume went from about 5,000 at the beginning to the current 60,000, Vermeer said.

Looking ahead

Department of Human Services leaders expect the IowaCare program to cover 91,171 adults in this budget year, which ends June 30, 2013. It served 87,229 in all of fiscal 2012. People move in and out of the system, though, so those numbers do not represent how many are in during a given month. The number IowaCare leaders pay attention to is 61,100 clients, its current enrollment, and highest to date.

State officials have learned lessons from the IowaCare program.

Vermeer said experiences are showing that having medical centers as medical homes for patient care can help people with chronic diseases. Another lesson, she said, is that people need plenty of assistance to navigate the health care system, especially if they never had insurance before.

Vermeer said she sees improvement, given that only two IowaCare health centers existed before 2010, and only four before the recent expansion to eight.

“Now, with that being said, if you had all the money in the world is this how you would design a program? I would say no, because it does have a lot of access issues,” she said. “But we’ve done the best we can with both the state and federal resources that we had available to us to try and make the access as good as we can get it, within the very strong constraints of program financing and the program structure.”

The followingreporters  contributed to this report: Cindy Hadish, The Gazette; Christinia Crippes, Burlington Hawk Eye; Adam Sullivan, Iowa City Press-Citizen; Erik Hogstrom, The Dubuque Telegraph Herald; and Sujin Kim,

About IowaWatch is a non-profit, online news website operated by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, which is dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work.


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