As many as 700,000 Illinoisans at risk of losing Medicaid coverage this year

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As many as 700,000 Illinoisans could lose their Medicaid this year because of a federal law phasing out COVID-19 protections.

Residents on Medicaid, a government program that provides health insurance to nearly 4 million people in Illinois with limited income, will need to prove eligibility if they receive a letter in the mail starting in May, Samantha Olds-Frey, CEO of Illinois Association of Medicaid Health Plans, said at an event held a few weeks ago at Malcolm X College.

“If folks lose coverage not because they’re not eligible but simply because of paperwork, it is going to continue to put strain on an already taxed system,” she said.

People enrolled in Medicaid will have 30 days to complete the form online, over the phone or through the mail; the letters are expected to go out over the next year. Olds-Fey said Medicaid recipients should make sure their address and contact information is up to date by logging into their account through the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services website, visiting the Medicaid website or by calling (877) 805-5312.

The federal government estimates about 17% of people on Medicaid nationwide could lose coverage, which would equal about 700,000 people in Illinois. Illinois health officials are more optimistic, estimating about 384,000 Illinois residents will lose Medicaid, because of its efforts to help eligible people keep their coverage, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Maintaining coverage is key to keep people healthy, experts say.

“Healthcare is a right, and your health coverage is the largest impact of your healthcare outcomes,” Olds-Frey said. “It is the largest social determinate of health that we have.”

Over 6% of Medicaid enrollees in Illinois are diagnosed with substance use disorder. Treatment for substance use like medication-assisted treatment can be provided under Medicaid. Methadone and buprenorphine can reduce overdose deaths by 50% after one year of treatment, said Rosemary Fister of Rush University.

“These meds cut the risk of dying in half; they also reduce or eliminate cravings, reduce or eliminate opioid use, reduce or eliminate the harms that happen when people use criminalized drugs from a poisoned drug supply in a not very stable way,” Fister said.

Experts in public health gathered recently at Malcolm X College for the first collaborative event between the West Side and South Side Heroin and Opioid Task Forces to share information on Illinois’s ongoing opioid epidemic.

Some milestones were celebrated, including the FDA’s decision to have the opioid-reversing medication Narcan available over the counter. Dr. Rafael Rivera, chief of staff for the Illinois Department of Public Health’s division of Substance Use Prevention and Recovery, said the state has distributed over 120,000 Narcan kits.

“If we can get to 160,000 kits distributed across the state, there’s an 80% probability that those who witness an overdose will have Narcan,” Rivera said.

Dr. Wilnise Jasmin of the Chicago Department of Public Health warned xylazine, a horse tranquilizer, is a danger to those using opioids. Since it’s not an opioid, reversing an overdose with Narcan becomes less effective.

There were at least 161 xylazine-related deaths in Cook County last year – a 46% increase over 2021, according to WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio. Xylazine can cause skin sores that can be difficult to heal, no matter how the drug is taken.

“There are many instances if the tissue or the damage is not reversible; there may be a very tough decision to be made between the person and their provider about possible amputation,” Jasmin said.

Numbers for 2022 opioid overdose deaths are still being counted, but Cook County expects the number to total over 2,000. Preliminary numbers stand at 1,599 deaths, with 78% male and 56% Black.

Fentanyl continues to play a deadly role, with over 85% of opioid-related deaths in 2021 involving the drug, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. A bill approved by the Illinois House and co-sponsored by state Rep. La Shawn Ford calls for fentanyl test strips to be sold over the counter at pharmacies and other retailers. HB3203 – also known as the Prevent Fentanyl Exposure Act – is now pending in the Illinois Senate after unanimously passing the House last month.

Tyler’s Law was passed in California and now requires hospitals in that state to include fentanyl in all drug-screening urine tests. Healthcare clinics have difficulty getting fentanyl-testing urine cups since none of the manufacturers have applied for approval under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment, according to Dr. Thomas Huggett of Lawndale Christian Health Care, who was speaking at this month’s West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force meeting.

Huggett said that if anyone with a diagnosed opioid use disorder in a hospital in Illinois must be given recovery care, despite if the hospital urine sample is negative for substances. Anyone that has not been given recovery services can file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Public Health or the Illinois Attorney General. Complaints need to be made in order to have the IDPH open an investigation on the matter, Huggett said.

There are multiple locations on the West Side that accept Medicaid for substance use disorder medication assisted treatment, including Loretto Hospital, PCC Community Wellness Center and Circle Family Healthcare Network. The full list can be found on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website.

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