Top Democrats in the Montana House of Representatives this week formally requested records related to Medicaid withdrawals after the state’s health department chief rejected a similar request from a legislative committee.
Last month, Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Charlie Brereton told a legislative committee vice president that his agency did not have enough time to respond to detailed requests for data within the timeframe requested by lawmakers.
Rep. S.J. Howell, D-Missoula, who chaired the meeting, also cited health department staffing capacity as an obstacle. However, Howell also said committee members need information to answer questions, including whether Montanans eligible for health insurance through the state have health insurance.
This week, Minority Leader Kim Abbott, citing the Montana Constitution’s “right to know,” sent a letter to the health department reiterating the request for the data and explaining why lawmakers need and are entitled to the information.
“The data requested by the Committee are critical for the public to fully understand the impact of your department’s policies and procedures on health care coverage in Montana,” Abbott wrote.
Abbott of Helena said the “little data” the department has provided shows more than 120,000 Montanans have lost coverage, but little other information is available. But she said the process the health department initiated last spring “will cause lasting harm to our state’s families, small businesses and health care system.”
In the letter, Abbott criticized the way the health department handled the Medicaid redetermination. Many health care professionals say months-long delays in paperwork put seniors and children at risk of worsening health conditions.
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid also expressed concern in August about the large number of people in Montana losing health insurance as it began verifying whether insured Montanans were still eligible for Medicaid.
“You have refused to conduct the redetermination process in a responsible manner to minimize insurance losses,” Abbott wrote to Brereton. “Now you refuse to accept responsibility for the damage your department has caused. You have attempted to Making excuses for this type of behavior is unacceptable. If any private business was operating in this manner they would certainly be looking for a new CEO.”
A health department spokesman did not respond to questions about when the agency would provide the information, whether any data had been provided, or whether agency leaders had tried to hire more staff before embarking on at least several major missions last year.
“Department officials have never indicated that we would not provide the requested information,” Health Department spokesman Jon Ebelt said in an email.
In last month’s meeting, Brereton said his department was “stretched” and he wanted to protect the team’s time. He said the spring would be a better time to discuss the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Committee’s request for data.
Abbott’s letter asked for “word-for-word” copies of information previously requested by the committee, including the number of children and adults whose eligibility was terminated, renewed or pending; the number of Native American children and adults whose coverage was renewed, lost coverage or pending; and the coverage status of cases in each county.
“This is really a failed project,” Abbott said by phone. “There are a lot of people who are involved and harmed and we absolutely need to have a better understanding of who these people are and where they are.”
The Department of Administration acknowledged receipt of the records requests in an email Thursday: “These requests will be processed in the order in which they are received and within the timeframe specified in Montana SB 232. We will contact you.”
Senate Bill 232 sets a deadline for state agencies to respond to records requests, usually within 90 days.