COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's Medicaid agency is making it easier for people to apply for and renew coverage through the government health care program by moving the enrollment process online, officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The automation also will allow the Department of Health and Human Services to shift some employees from processing paperwork to initiatives intended to improve patients' health and lower costs long-term, said John Supra, the agency's deputy director and chief information officer.
"We spend an awful lot of staff time moving paper around," he told The AP ahead of Friday's official announcement. "We need staff out in the community working with citizens, not sitting in county offices."
Beginning Oct. 1, residents can go to a Web site to determine their eligibility and sign up for the insurance program for the poor and disabled, then later renew if they remain eligible. Those who aren't computer savvy or lack access can continue to submit the paper forms, Supra said.
The agency has contracted with IBM to provide the software and maintain the system, easing the agency's workload beyond less paperwork and one-on-one help with applications. The company, rather than agency staff, will also make any programming updates to account for changes in state or federal policy, Supra said.
The agency will pay IBM up to $22.8 million over the next seven years for software licensing, annual maintenance, and support, according to the agency.
Residents may eventually also be able to use the Web site to determine eligibility for welfare and food payment programs through the Department of Social Services — as neighboring North Carolina already does. The software allows for multiple connections, Supra said, adding that discussions with DSS are in the works.
Other states contracted for the system include Arkansas, Maryland and Minnesota.
"In the past, all this was paper based. It's a huge, big data issue. This is a phenomenal ability to connect big government silos," said Karen Parish, IBM vice president of Smarter Cities software.
Supra said the system will be the foundation for the agency's initiatives aimed at improving hot spots of poor health, by helping the agency manage patients' individual cases.
"We see this as a key piece," he said. "To do it from paper in the current system couldn't be possible."
The first payment to IBM of $6 million is included in the 2013-14 House budget plan.
While the state is making it easier for eligible people to enroll in Medicaid, Gov. Nikki Haley remains adamantly opposed to expanding eligibility under the federal health care law, saying the state can't afford the eventual costs. The federal government has promised to pay the full cost of the expansion for three years, and later fund 90 percent.
House Republicans contend the state needs to focus on making people healthier, at a reduced cost, not adding people to a dysfunctional system.
The House budget proposal for next fiscal year includes more than $80 million for Medicaid programs aimed at improving residents' health. It includes incentives to hospitals and doctors' offices for innovative, cost-cutting programs, reimbursing 18 rural hospitals 100 percent of their costs for treating patients without health care, and expanding access to specialists in rural areas.
Democrats praise the initiatives but contend they're no alternative to expanding Medicaid eligibility to hundreds of thousands of additional poor adults. That fight now moves to the Senate, where the budget is in the committee process.