In May, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced that West Virginia would extend Medicaid coverage to an estimated 91,500 uninsured low-income residents under the healthcare overhaul starting next January.
Currently, about 183,000 West Virginian residents are enrolled in Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. This number is expected to grow to about 277,000 by 2016, according to an actuarial report commissioned by the state Insurance Commissioner's office.
The report concludes that expanding Medicaid while following other provisions of the federal healthcare law eventually will reduce the ranks of the state's uninsured from 246,000 West Virginians to around 76,000.
First, the word needs to get out to the community.
Perry Bryant, executive director of the state-based advocacy group West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said a study has shown most state residents who would benefit under the health overhaul "have no idea that it's coming."
"Getting that word out and reaching that many people is a really daunting task," Bryant said. "It's really difficult to reach everybody who's going to be eligible. The other part is, you can't motivate somebody to make these kind of significant changes with one TV message or one radio commercial. It takes numerous contacts ... to have an effect on people's behaviors."
Huntington-based Valley Health Systems CEO Steve Shattls said one part involves informing clients during health clinic visits about how enrollment procedures work. Whether they actually decide to enroll is another matter.
More difficult is the task of finding and persuading people who now only seek help in hospital emergency rooms to instead acquire insurance through the healthcare program so that they can see regular doctors.
"Surely we have concerns about reaching people in the general community who maybe seek care outside of a primary care access point," Shattls said. "There may be people that resist the enrollment for various reasons. I don't know what the impact is going to be. I hope we insure many more West Virginians than are currently insured."
According to the AP data, $14 million in state-awarded grants will be spent on outreach programs. More than two dozen health centers statewide will share $2.5 million from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to hire 53 workers who will assist the uninsured with enrollment. And $600,000 in federal grants will be doled out to community groups.
Federal funding for the community health clinic outreach is based on the number of patients. Valley Health Systems, which has clinics in 30 locations in six counties, will receive the most funding, $230,000.
"We plan in our communities to do what we can to get the word out," Shattls said. "It's like with anything else, are we going to be able to get them to that place where they can see the enrollment forms and get online and work with staff? Until the time comes ... we'll know then. But we're going to begin to gear up."
In addition, Bryant said foundation-funded smaller grants will help train nonprofit and faith-based groups, libraries and health departments statewide so they can further help residents at the local level understand the enrollment process.
Specifics of the state outreach programs were unavailable. Jeremiah Samples, an expert on the federal law who recently moved from the state Insurance Commission to become assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Resources, didn't immediately return a telephone message Wednesday.