More than 15,000 people could be added to the Medicaid ranks in Champaign County when the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, a state-high two-thirds increase under the government program, a new report predicts.
That means more low-income people will have health coverage and more money will be available to pay hospitals and doctors for their care, county health advocates said. But it also may mean longer waits as more patients try to make appointments with a limited number of providers.
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The community's service industry is large with many small businesses that don't provide insurance as a benefit, said Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, an advocacy group. The uninsured include hair stylists, musicians, bartenders, waiters and waitresses, and people who work in grocery stores and gas stations, she said.
"It's disturbing but exciting," Lennhoff said. "It validates our sense of the community and how many people can come in from the cold and get insurance."
According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation's report, being released Wednesday, other Medicaid hot spots in Illinois include parts of Chicago and its suburbs and McLean County in central Illinois.
Along with the report, the foundation released an interactive tool that people can use to zoom in on states to find how Medicaid and the uninsured will change, region by region. The report is based on an analysis of several years of U.S. Census Bureau survey data and simulates a world where the health law's benefits have hit their peak.
Champaign County health advocates aren't surprised by the prediction. They're gearing up to enroll thousands of low-income uninsured people who are spread out across almost 1,000 square miles, including a university town and surrounding rural areas.
Several county groups have federal and state grants to help enroll the uninsured, and are hiring and training people this summer. When a grant to the Champaign Urbana Public Health District was announced recently, chief administrator Julie Pryde's phone started ringing.
"I've probably already taken 30 calls in the last few months from people saying, `Can I come in and sign up for the Affordable Care Act?"' Pryde said. "There are a lot of questions out there, a lot of misinformation. And there are a lot of people who are absolutely ecstatic. I've seen many adult men who have never been to a doctor. I'm talking about working people."
Starting in mid-August, the health district staff will take shifts to answer questions live on a new Facebook page, Pryde said. A video about the health law already plays in the health district's lobby.
Across the nation, starting Oct. 1, people can start shopping for insurance on a new online marketplace. Many middle class people will get financial help paying for their coverage through new tax credits. Many poor people will qualify for Medicaid. The new coverage under President Barack Obama's health law starts Jan. 1.
Finding a doctor who takes new Medicaid patients may be a problem initially, Pryde said.
"Access to care is always an issue in this county," Pryde said. "There's not a whole lot we can do to influence the number of doctors."
But new Medicaid patients will bring money to the county that eventually will help hire more health care providers, including doctors, advocates said.
"Having more patients covered should also provide Promise Healthcare with more resources to invest in the care of our patients," said Nancy Greenwalt, executive director of the nonprofit that operates the Frances Nelson Heath Center in Champaign. "This could mean adding providers, expanding hours or expanding services targeted at improving the overall health of our patients."
The Kaiser report predicts that nationally and in Illinois the new Medicaid enrollees will be more likely to be white and non-Hispanic than current Medicaid patients.
"The face of Medicaid is going to shift somewhat with this expansion, more so in some areas than in others. It's going to vary dramatically," said Rachel Garfield, a senior researcher at Kaiser's Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. "It will look different in Los Angeles than in southern, rural Illinois."
Illinois has the potential to shrink its rate of uninsured residents from 16 percent to 8.6 percent under the law, according to the report. When the law is fully implemented, Illinois can expect to see 814,000 fewer uninsured residents.