Sen. Begich: Government should lift Medicaid suspension

Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009

ANCHORAGE - U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said the federal government suspension banning Alaska from enrolling new people in a Medicaid program for the disabled and elderly should be lifted, the senator wrote in a letter this week.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that Begich, D-Alaska, also wrote to Gov. Sarah Palin urging her to get involved in the situation.

Earlier this month, the federal government prohibited Alaska from adding new people to the program after a review found it to be poorly managed. The program provides in-home help with basic needs, from getting a bath to taking medication, with the goal of keeping people out of nursing homes. The services are paid for by Medicaid and overseen by the state Division of Senior and Disabilities Services.

State officials do not know how long the moratorium will last but estimate it will affect about 1,000 people. The state must create an improvement plan, which is due Sept. 1.

The lack of timely qualification assessments was a major problem uncovered in the federal review. From 2006 to 2009, 27 Alaskans died while waiting for an initial assessment, and 227 died while waiting to be reassessed.

State officials, who informed federal officials about the problem in March, said there also was a backlog of about 2,000 people waiting for a nurse assessment to determine what services were needed.

In his letter, Begich told Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that the moratorium would worsen the problem.

"Given these situations will multiply each day the moratorium is in place, I believe some form of corrective compliance would have been a better approach than closing down the entire waiver program," Begich wrote to Sebelius.

To Palin, Begich said there are legitimate questions about the state's administration of the program, but the federal response may be "overly forceful." He encouraged Palin to use the full services of the executive branch and to pass the letter on to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who will replace Palin when she steps down later this month.

A Palin spokeswoman said the governor was "working closely with the Department of Health and Social Services to identify the necessary steps to lift the moratorium."

Begich's office said it had not heard back from the federal government.

Federal officials have said the ban was necessary to assure the health and well-being of vulnerable and disabled people in the program.

The federal review found that the state did not investigate the deaths of the people who died while waiting to be enrolled in the program, and that the state didn't know whether any failure of services may have contributed to the deaths. The state has said that because elderly people are enrolled in the program, some natural deaths occur, but that it will now do mortality reviews.

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