Despite slow recovery, HUSKY enrollment continued to grow

As the economy soured over the past few years, enrollment of low-income families on the state’s HUSKY health insurance plan has spiked to an all-time high, a trend that is costing the state unprecedented amounts to cover.

Enrollment in HUSKY has increased by 10 percent in the past year and by 15 percent since the recession officially began in March 2008, to a total of 390,200, according to the state Department of Social Services.

“We don’t think there’s any doubt that the recession has contributed to an increase,” said David Dearborn, spokesman for DSS, adding staff is doing “herculean work” to keep pace with the influx.

And while state legislators will soon have to figure a way to close an estimated $3.4 billion budget shortfall, chairmen of the Appropriations and Human Services committees said they are not ready to scale back benefits or tighten eligibility requirements.

“You can’t look at these benefits as a money vacuum. There is a lot of support for HUSKY and this is not an area I am ready to begin minimizing coverage,” said Sen. Paul R. Doyle, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the Human Services Committee.

The unexpected spike in HUSKY enrollment and other Medicaid health programs this fiscal year has caused a $42.2 million shortfall in the program’s budget. The Finance Advisory Committee is expected to vote today to fill that gap by transferring surplus money from other DSS programs to HUSKY’s budget.

Enrollment in Medicaid health programs, which includes HUSKY, has jumped from 429,301 in April 2009 to 465,767 in April 2010 — an 8.5 percent increase overall attributable almost entirely to HUSKY. The federal government picks up part of the cost–usually half, but federal stimulus dollars increased Washington’s share to 62 percent through Dec. 31.

“This has been an issue for us. It’s created quite a strain on our budget,” said Rep. John Geragosian, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “The economy has started to rebound slightly but we are still nowhere near from being out of the woods.”

The $19 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1 did offset costs by increasing co-payments and premiums for a small portion of those enrolled in HUSKY.

For 15,500 of those enrolled, co-payments for routine eye exams increased by $10 and non-routine visits by $5. Prescription co-pays also increased by a few dollars, depending on the type of medication. Monthly family premiums also increased to $60. Over-the-counter drugs for all HUSKY clients over 21 also will no longer be covered, with the exception of insulin, insulin syringes and drugs for AIDS.

“There are some ways to defer some of the costs for us, but I think we have to be careful with pricing people out of the program. It may force people not to seek health care,” said Geragosian, who also does not support increasing the threshold of who qualifies for HUSKY or increasing premiums and co-pays much more.

Currently, HUSKY A is open to those making at or below 185 percent the federal poverty level. That equates to $33,874 for a family of three. Husky B, which has much lower enrollment, is open to just children in families making less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

No one is certain when enrollment will stabilize, but Geragosian and Doyle said as co-chairs they intend to continue fully-funding the programs, at whatever level is needed.

“These programs should be there for them,” Geragosian said.

“Even though the numbers are a bit frightening, I think we are better off by keeping them on insurance,” he said, explaining too many people would turn to the emergency room for primary care.

For Sharon Langer, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, coverage should remain as-is and the decision of whether to rein in costs should be obvious for lawmakers.

“The day of reckoning is coming to deal with this more than $3 billion deficit … but we hope these benefits are not on their radar,” she said. “Yes, enrollment is going up, just like it’s up for food stamps but that doesn’t mean that’s where cuts should be made. During a recession every government-sponsored service that there is will help those faced with loosing their job.”

Connecticut’s unemployment rate has been hovering at 9 percent the past few months, and until that number starts to decrease to the 5 percent rate the state was at when the recession began, Geragosian and Langer said they both don’t see HUSKY enrollment decreasing.