Rural Health Information Hub Latest News

SNAP Benefits Amounts Have Increased in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) announced on October 1, due to changes made by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, that it was raising its income and benefit limits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), meaning some people who previously weren’t eligible to receive assistance through the SNAP Program may now qualify. Factors that could contribute to a household’s higher SNAP allowances and income limits include household size, monthly income, and if a member of the household is 60 years of age or older or has a disability. Benefits were also expanded for college students enrolled in some employment and training programs. The SNAP income limit changes run through September 30, 2024.

Pennie Insurers Present Plan Designs and Benefits

All nine managed care organizations offering health insurance coverage through Pennie, PA’s Health Insurance Marketplace, presented their individual markets and plan designs during this a Pennie Insurer Marketplace Plan Review. Jefferson Health Plans, a new competitor in Bucks, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties, presented their new plans for potential customers along with hospital and provider networks. Highmark and Geisinger have added plans in several new counties as they expand their footprint from 2023. According to the PA Insurance Department, all insurers currently offering individual market coverage in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties will continue to provide plans in 2024 with a statewide average premium increase of 3.9%, which is lower than what insurers initially filed and what was reported this summer. The individual health insurance market rate increases are lower than last year’s increases and are trending lower than current national averages for 2024 health plans. Open Enrollment begins November 1, 2023, and ends January 19, 2024.

Contrary to Rumors, Pennsylvania Is Not Pausing Medicaid Unwinding

There have been some confusing reports around Pennsylvania’s Medicaid unwinding process and the Department of Human Services (DHS) requests your help in correcting misunderstandings, particularly that DHS is pausing its Medicaid unwinding process. Pennsylvania is not pausing redeterminations. DHS is operating under an approved mitigation strategy to manually address a known issue with the ex parte review process which is the highest priority right now.

Medicaid Unwinding and Renewals in Pennsylvania

As of August, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has completed redeterminations for 30% of the individuals who maintained continuous eligibility through the public health emergency. Of those who had redetermination completed, 54% retained their Medicaid coverage. Of those who did not retain coverage, 53% were due to failure to provide documentation. 7,626 individuals have successfully enrolled through Pennie. One encouraging fact is that the rate of returned mail is lower than expected, indicating that your messages to update contact information are getting through. DHS is increasing direct outreach to Medicaid enrollees ahead of renewals by holding press events with community partners – including FQHCs – to raise awareness of unwinding and what people need to do to stay covered; standing up a partnership with a grassroots outreach partner to hold events in grocery stores, bodegas, faith centers, cultural festivals and more in high Medicaid density communities in the commonwealth; running a long-term paid media campaign and partnering with Pennie to co-brand ads through their media efforts; and working across state agencies to continue to grow the network of partners, advocates, and stakeholders assisting with outreach to reach more Pennsylvanians.

Register Now for the Citizen Advocate Webinar: Behind the Scenes of Congressional Decision-Making

Many Americans believe that lawmakers don’t care about what constituents think and that influencing legislative outcomes is impossible. Yet research from the Congressional Management Foundation shows that Members of Congress strongly believe that constituents are a valuable and informative resource in the decision-making process. Your “backstage pass” will dispel myths about Congress and provide practical strategies on how decisions are really made and by whom. Register here for the November 14, 3:00 – 4:00 p.m. webinar.

Pennsylvania Legislators Launch Pennsylvania Black Maternal Health Caucus

In advance of Gov. Shapiro signing Act 5 into law, creating better reporting of maternal morbidity data, state Reps. Morgan Cephas, D-Phila.; Gina H. Curry, D-Delaware; and La’Tasha D. Mayes (D-Allegheny) formed the Pennsylvania Black Maternal Health Caucus. Building on the momentum of legislative victories and the increasing need for attention to maternal mortality and morbidity issues, particularly among Black families, the caucus intends to boldly address the disturbing trends of Black maternal mortality and morbidity in Pennsylvania through strategic, intersectional legislation and policy; create a collaborative, representative and action-oriented legislative and policy space for Pennsylvania legislators, advocates and stakeholders; and introduce, advance, and pass the Pennsylvania MOMNIBUS – a legislative package making critical investments and policy changes to improve maternal health outcomes in Pennsylvania. Click here to watch the press conference.

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Executive Order to Improve Mental Health and SUD Accessibility

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro signed an Executive Order directing commonwealth agencies to collaborate with mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) stakeholders to streamline and improve the accessibility of mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) services across the Commonwealth. A first-of-its-kind Council for Pennsylvania will develop and recommend to the governor a statewide action plan to address any gaps in access, affordability, or delivery of services. The Council has the goals of removing silos across state agencies, healthcare providers, payers, and state and local government sectors and decreasing the wait time for services for Pennsylvanians in need. The EO also creates an Advisory Committee that will share industry knowledge, expertise, reports, findings, and feedback from the communities they serve with the Council to assist members in their work to improve the delivery of services.

Continuing Education Credit Worksheet That is Due by  Oct. 26 

PACHC was pleased to offer continuing medical education (CME) and continuing dental education (CDE) at the PACHC Annual Conference and Clinical Summit this year. If you haven’t already returned your continuing education worksheet, please email it to Katie Noss, Manager, Clinical and Quality Improvement, no later than Oct. 26. If you need another form, a PDF is available. Due by  Oct. 26, 2023

ARC Awards Nearly $54 Million to Appalachia’s Coal Communities

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) awarded nearly $54 million to 64 projects in 217 counties through our POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative, which supports economic diversification in Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities.

The funds will help create new jobs in several industries, expand workforce training, and attract investment to communities affected by the downturn of the coal industry.  With these awards, POWER has invested a grand total of $420 million in 507 projects impacting 365 counties!

Read more about our largest POWER package to date here.

Tiny, Rural Hospitals Feel the Pinch as Medicare Advantage Plans Grow

Jason Bleak runs Battle Mountain General Hospital, a small facility in a remote Nevada gold mining town that he described as “out here in the middle of nowhere.”

When several representatives from private health insurance companies called on him a few years ago to offer Medicare Advantage plan contracts so their enrollees could use his hospital, Bleak sent them away.

“Come back to the table with a better offer,” the chief executive recalled telling them. The representatives haven’t returned.

Battle Mountain is in north-central Nevada about a three-hour drive from Reno, and four hours from Salt Lake City. Bleak suspects insurance companies simply haven’t enrolled enough of the area’s seniors to need his hospital in their network.

Medicare Advantage insurers are private companies that contract with the federal government to provide Medicare benefits to seniors in place of traditional Medicare. The plans have become dubious payers for many large and small hospitals, which report the insurers are often slow to pay or don’t pay.

Private plans now cover more than half of all those eligible for Medicare. And while enrollment is highest in metropolitan areas, it has increased fourfold in rural areas since 2010. Meanwhile, more than 150 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina. Largely rural states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia have had the most closures.

Medicare Advantage growth has had an outsize impact on the finances of small, rural hospitals that Medicare has designated as “critical access.” Under the designation, government-administered Medicare pays extra to those hospitals to compensate for low patient volumes. Medicare Advantage plans, on the other hand, offer negotiated rates that hospital operators say often don’t match those of traditional Medicare.

“It’s happening across the country,” said Carrie Cochran-McClain, chief policy officer of the National Rural Health Association, whose members include small-town hospitals.

“Depending on the level of Medicare Advantage penetration in individual communities, some facilities are seeing a significant portion of their traditional Medicare patient or beneficiary move into Medicare Advantage,” Cochran-McClain said.

Kelly Adams is the CEO of Mesa View Regional Hospital, another rural hospital in Nevada. He said he applauds Battle Mountain’s Bleak for keeping Medicare Advantage plans out of his hospital “as long as he has.”

Mesa View, which is a little more than an hour’s drive east of Las Vegas, has a high percentage of patients enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans.

“Am I going to say I’m not going to take care of 40% of our patients at the hospital or the clinic?” Adams said, adding that it would be a “tough deal” to be forced to reject patients because they didn’t have traditional Medicare.

Mesa View has 21 Medicare Advantage contracts with multiple insurance companies. Adams said he has trouble getting the plans to pay for care the hospital has provided. They are either “slow pay or no pay,” he said.

In all, the plans owe Mesa View more than $800,000 for care already provided. Mesa View lost about $1.3 million taking care of patients, according to its most recent annual cost report.

NRHA’s Cochran-McClain said the growth in the plans also narrows options for patients because “the contracting that is happening under Medicare Advantage frequently has an influence on steering patients to specific types of providers.” If a hospital or provider does not contract with a Medicare Advantage plan, then a patient may have to pay for out-of-network care. That generally wouldn’t happen with traditional Medicare, which is widely accepted.

At Mesa View, patients must drive to Utah to find nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities covered by their Medicare Advantage plans.

“Our local nursing homes are not taking Medicare Advantage patients because they don’t get paid. But if you’re straight Medicare, they’d be happy to take that patient,” Adams said.

David Allen, a spokesperson for AHIP, an industry trade group formerly known as America’s Health Insurance Plans, declined to respond to Bleak’s and Adams’ specific concerns. Instead, he said enrollees are signing on because the plans “are more efficient, more cost-effective, and deliver better value than original Medicare.”

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services press secretary Sara Lonardo said CMS has acted to ensure “that private insurance companies are held accountable for providing quality coverage and care.”

The reach of private Medicare Advantage plans varies widely in rural areas, said Keith Mueller, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. If recent trends continue, enrollment could tip to 50% of all rural Medicare beneficiaries in about three years — with some regions like the Upper Midwest already higher than 50% and others lower, such as Nevada and the Mountain States, but trending upward.

In June, a bipartisan group of Congress members, led by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), sent a letter urging federal agencies to do more to force Medicare Advantage insurers to pay health systems what they owe for patient care.

In an August response, CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure wrote that a final rule issued in April made “impactful changes” to speed up care and address concerns about prior authorization — when a hospital and patient must get advance permission for care to ensure it will be covered by an insurer. Brooks-LaSure noted another proposed rule that, once finalized, could mandate that insurers provide specific reasons for denying care within seven days.

Hospital operators Adams and Bleak also want more federal action, and fast.

Bleak at Battle Mountain said he knows Medicare Advantage plans will eventually move into his area and he will have to contract with them.

“The question is,” Bleak said, “how can we match the reimbursement so that we can sustain and keep our hospitals in these rural areas viable and strong?”