In a matter of days, state workers processing Medicaid applications for Illinois residents who signed up under President Barack Obama's health care law will face a monstrous backlog as thousands of applications stuck in the once-crippled federal enrollment system are transferred.
The latest kink in the enrollment process for the nation's new health insurance system was announced Thursday, just days after the latest figures showed 61,000 Illinois residents had signed up for private coverage since Oct. 1 through HealthCare.gov.
But while those people succeeded in picking a health plan, many others who may or may not qualify for Medicaid heard nothing as their applications waited in an electronic parking lot.
The Illinois Medicaid program received the first 5,000 of those Medicaid applications from the federal government Thursday, said Mike Koetting of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the state's Medicaid agency. Federal officials have informed Illinois there will be 76,000 total applications representing 110,000 individuals, Koetting said.
"That will completely swamp us," Koetting said at a meeting of state health officials in Chicago. Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Michelle Saddler agreed, saying the incoming applications will "create major problems" and that her agency, which processes the applications, had "a gargantuan task ahead of us."
Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the Illinois Medicaid program, said the state is hiring additional workers and hiring temporary workers to keep up with the expected load.
Aaron Albright, a spokesman for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the federal government has made efforts to let states know how many applications to expect.
"Since October, we have provided states with weekly data showing the numbers of state residents who have been found likely eligible so states could anticipate the upcoming workload. In November, we provided states with new flexibility to enroll some or all of those people immediately -- in part in anticipation of workload concerns -- and we continue to make that option available to states," Albright said.
Illinois is among several states now testing the transfer process with the federal government, said Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors. He said when all the applications come in they may create logjams that will seem overwhelming for state agencies.
Salo said there's a "silver lining" for people waiting for their applications to be approved: Medicaid coverage is retroactive for 90 days. "So the impact to the consumer will be less drastic than a similar challenge" for people signing up for private insurance on the new marketplaces, Salo said.
Illinois will try to tease out any marketplace-eligible individuals from the flood of applications, Koetting said. Those people face a March 31 deadline to get coverage. Tax penalties result if they are uninsured after that date.
Last month, Illinois officials started emailing and calling thousands of people, advising them to start over on their health insurance applications if they believed the federal government had mistakenly referred them to Medicaid.
Individuals who make less than $15,860 a year qualify for Medicaid, as do families of four with annual income below $32,500. States have final say on who's eligible for Medicaid.
People with higher incomes can shop for a private insurance plan on the marketplace, and many will get government subsidies to help pay for it.