State mistakenly directs Medicaid calls to Montana

Friday, August 5, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Department of Social Services acknowledged Thursday that a typographical error in a letter informing 339,000 Medicaid recipients of impending cuts wrongly listed a Montana woman's toll-free number as the state help line for hearing or speech impaired people.

The letters mailed Monday already have resulted in hundreds of calls to Sharon Rivera, who lives in Columbia Falls, Mont. -- more than 1,200 miles northwest of Missouri's capital -- and books concerts for an American Indian folk singer.

Many of the callers are older -- some are weeping, others cursing -- and don't understand when she tries to explain the mistake, Rivera said. So instead of hanging up on them, she has been listening.

"This has been a nightmare for me. It swallows a huge amount of my time. My phone rings constantly," Rivera said. "And I honestly am feeling very, very sad for the people who call."

The correct toll-free number for hearing or speech impaired Medicaid recipients is (800) 735-2966.

The state plans to reimburse Rivera for the phone calls. And officials in the Division of Medical Service plan to decide today how notify Medicaid recipients of the mistake, said department spokeswoman Deborah Scott. One possible way: another round of letters, which cost the state about $80,000 the first time, Scott said.

At the urging of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, the GOP-led legislature this year eliminated Medicaid health care coverage for about 90,000 of Missouri's 1 million Medicaid recipients. It cut services such as dental care, eyeglasses and crutches for an additional 339,000 adults remaining on Medicaid, and imposed new co-payments ranging from 50 cents to $10.

Several thousand adults were dropped from the rolls starting July 1, and a federal lawsuit claims those notification letters violated due process rights.

The latest letters informed people that certain services would no longer be covered effective Sept. 1, and that co-payments also would be required beginning then.

The end of the two-page letter lists a correct toll-free number for the Medicaid program's voice-automated recipient services section. But in the letterhead are two other toll-free numbers -- one for voice calling and the other for text telephones used by the hearing or speech impaired.

The number for the text telephone is off by one digit, resulting in calls to Rivera's home-based business, Hawkstone Productions. Rivera books concerts and sells music for Jack Gladstone, who promotes himself as a singer, songwriter, lecturer and storyteller.

The department spokeswoman said Rivera has been kind with them -- just as she has been with Medicaid callers.

"She's been very gracious," Scott said, "and we have let her know that we obviously will be compensating her for her time and her phone expense."

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