By Sam Karlin

The Louisiana Department of Health has temporarily suspended a feature of its new eligibility system that automatically kicked people off the Medicaid rolls if they did not respond to requests for annual renewal information, a move that will keep 75,000 people from losing coverage immediately.

Jen Steele, LDH Medicaid director, confirmed Tuesday the agency is suspending the auto-closure feature amid a heightened workload for staffers processing calls and information from Medicaid enrollees.

The new eligibility system installed last year was set to drop 75,000 people from the Medicaid rolls because of the automatic closure feature for people who needed to renew their coverage annually. About a quarter of those people had disabilities, half were "children and families" and a quarter were adults who gained coverage through an expansion of the government-sponsored health insurance, Steele said.

Before the suspension, enrollees had 30 days to respond to requests for annual renewal information before they automatically lost coverage. The move will not affect the wage check system, which kicks people off Medicaid if they don't respond to requests for wage information within 10 days, said LDH Spokesman Bob Johannessen.

"LDH is temporarily suspending the use of the new system's auto closure feature for failure to respond at annual renewal until such time as it can ensure that no one who plays by the rules -- who provides requested information timely -- is at risk of losing coverage through no fault of their own," Steele said in a statement.

The auto-closure feature is suspended only for people whose annual renewal took place in July and August of this year, Steele said, adding "it appears" they failed to respond to their renewal letter.

LDH is currently experiencing high call volumes, especially related to annual renewals, the agency said. It has also received an influx of calls from people trying to verify wage information in recent months as the first wage checks were performed and enrollees were warned they could lose coverage if they didn't provide more information.

The workload -- calls to LDH's customer service unit and a large amount of information enrollees have sent the agency -- is currently too much for the department to handle, Steele said.

It is not clear how long the suspension of automatic closures will last. LDH will continually evaluate its progress and will resume the feature when "the pace of work processing is sufficient to ensure that no one is at risk of losing coverage through no fault of their own," Steele said.

"LDH will continue to process information received as quickly as possible, automatically ending coverage for people determined ineligible and renewing coverage for those who continue to meet program requirements," Steel said.

(c)2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.