Hundreds of Minnesotans with disabilities received cancellation notices this month for their state-funded health insurance, a result of confusion over a change in the due date for their premiums.

County social workers say they have been flooded with panicked calls from people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities who received cancellation notices after missing their November premium payments.

More than 2,300 people statewide have received cancellation notices, including nearly 400 people in Hennepin County alone.

It isn’t too late for affected individuals to reinstate their coverage. State officials said those who pay their December premiums by the end of November will have coverage reopened for Dec. 1. And people who pay the December and January premium by the end of December will be reinstated retroactively to Dec. 1.

Still, the episode has left many beneficiaries rattled.

Kim Michals, 37, of South St. Paul, who has bipolar and borderline personality disorders, recalls “feeling panicked” and “sinking into a desperate state of anxiety,” after receiving his cancellation notice in the mail last week. Without health insurance, Michals is unable to afford medications to control his anxiety and depression.

“It’s scary when you get a notice like that out of the blue, because your mind starts racing,” he said. “I once went four months without my meds, and they were the four most miserable months of my life. I didn’t want to go through that again.”

The changes affect a popular state-funded program known as Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities, or MA-EPD, which was created in 1999 as a way to promote competitive employment and self sufficiency.

The program is meant to encourage work by permitting people with disabilities to retain low-cost medical insurance while earning more money than is normally allowed under the state plan. About 9,000 Minnesotans are enrolled in the program, with premiums as low as $35 a month.

But a seemingly small change to the program has created alarm. In early September, the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees Medical Assistance, notified customers that their premiums would be due on the fourth of each month instead of the 15th, starting in November. The notices made it clear that customers who missed the new deadline would have their coverage “closed,” or canceled, even though eligibility could be reinstated after late payments.

State officials said the changes were designed to streamline the program, as many people ended up with unpaid balances under the old premium deadline.

The agency advertised this and other changes in Access Press, a newspaper for the disability community, in November. State officials also met with disability advocates and counties to discuss ways to communicate the changes to enrollees.

From the beginning, however, county officials feared the change would result in mass cancellations, simply because so many people in the program have intellectual and developmental disabilities and may struggle to read the mail.

“We freaked out” after learning of the changes, said Jackie Poidinger, a program manager for Hennepin County. “This is a pretty vulnerable population to just cut them off. For us, we knew we had to get more proactive.”

This month, Hennepin County received a list from the state of about 600 beneficiaries who had failed to make their new payments on time. With a team of social workers and administrators making telephone calls, the county has been able to reduce that number to about 390 people. “It’s still a huge number,” Poidinger said. It may take the county until early 2016 to work through all the people who have received cancellation notices, she said.

In northern St. Louis County, county workers have been receiving 20 calls a day from people who received cancellation notices and fear the loss of benefits.

Michals said he managed to restore his coverage after quickly making a payment. Even so, he’s unnerved.

“They tell me that everything is taken care of,” he said. “But it’s still scary to think how quickly they can cancel your coverage.”

 

Twitter: @chrisserres