Phone line for low-income insurance information a target of budget cuts

Although demand for coverage is rising, the state’s social services commissioner told legislators Tuesday that the Rell administration wants to shut down a toll-free phone line that provides information about the HUSKY health care program for low-income children and their families.

The toll-free line costs the state $670,000 a year. Department of Social Services Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski told the Human Services Committee the existing HUSKY Web site adequately answers questions and provides the necessary paperwork at little to no cost.

“The next generation of individuals and parents are very savvy on the Internet,” he said. “They will go on the Internet for banking. … and if they want to learn about HUSKY the information is there.”

He also said the state’s federally-funded health clinics are capable of answering questions about the program.

But advocates and some legislators are skeptical of the idea.

“It doesn’t make sense. There is no other service for people to call,” said Tanya Barrett, vice president of United Way’s 2-1-1 call service that contracts with the state to answer questions and help people register for HUSKY.

Last year the toll free line–1-877-CT-HUSKY–handled 106,000 phone calls, a 25 percent jump in call volume from 2008. The number of people covered by HUSKY plans increased by nearly 11 percent between Feb. 1, 2009 and Feb. 1, 2010, to 380,493, according to DSS figures.

Rep. Karen Jarmoc, D-Enfield, said relying solely on the Internet for applications and answering questions is not good enough.

“Clearly this will decrease participation. I wasn’t hearing a plan. If you are going to eliminate this you have to have a plan,” she said.

Public Health Committee Co-chairman Rep. Elizabeth B. Ritter, D-Waterford, also has concerns.

“Is there an adequate replacement? There has to be something for people to get answers,” she said, adding that the website is not a sufficient alternative.

Barrett said the information line does more than provide HUSKY information and application forms.

“We are able to get to the root of the problem on why someone isn’t able to get their children’s prescription. We can figure it out sometimes before they even leave the pharmacy,” she said.

During fiscal 2009, HUSKY Infoline helped 725 children get their prescriptions, helped 4,500 people find a doctor who accepts Husky and helped expedite coverage for 1,600 people.

“There is not another service that can do this,” Barrett said. “There will always be the need for access to care and navigation of this complicated health plan that is always changing.”

Connecticut Voices for Children senior policy fellow Sharon Langer said if the HUSKY Infoline’s funding is cut completely she doesn’t know how people will get their questions answered.

“The state can take a difficult path or an easy path to provide HUSKY,” said Langer.