County staff reports on Affordable Care Act costs

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

The Affordable Care Act that was passed by Congress, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012, is now just months away from adding county case files to health and human service offices across Minnesota and the nation.

Sherburne County staff told the county board during a workshop May 8 that they expect more than twice as many residents could qualify for Medical Assistance under the new guidelines set by the ACA.

If the county estimates hold true, Health and Human Services staff would add nearly 1,800 cases to the rolls, and the department and division heads have asked the board to double the eligibility specialist team that would sort and maintain all files starting in 2014. Of the approximate 1,500 files now on hand, four eligibility specialists (all based in the Government Center) each handle 275 of them while a fifth specialist is a telecommuter, managing 400.

Five new positions, which were approved by board vote May 14, are scheduled to stay in the county budget through 2015. Federal funding would subsidize 75 percent of the personnel and equipment costs for those eligibility specialists, and the county department leaders estimate that the county’s share would be $119,709 over two years.

The county board also approved three more positions for a lead specialist, one office assistant and a child support officer to coincide with the increased cases, as the department leaders recommended, to raise the county’s share by an extra $83,238.

Other counties are also preparing for influxes of files. The Sherburne County department plans to post its new positions for candidates starting May 20. As part of its request, the department asked the board to raise the opening pay for eligibility specialists to $18 per hour, which is up from $14.99. The existing workers receiving less than $18 per hour will be bumped to that level.

HHS Director Ken Ebel told the board that the county needed to boost those wages to compete with others for attracting the most responsible and qualified workers, as every county is being faced with posting the jobs this summer. Sherburne County’s opening hourly rate was lower than both Benton ($15.45) and Wright counties ($15.89), and still remains lower than Anoka ($18.72) and Stearns counties ($18.73).

“Every county is going to be hiring,” Ebel said. “It gets competitive. We’ll all be hiring from the same group of people. People that have any experience in this area are going to be in high demand.”

All current and new eligibility workers will need to complete an eight-week training course before open enrollment is scheduled to begin Oct. 1 of this year.

“They’re looking at a Web-based, ‘virtual classroom’ type of training,” said Gina Anderson, the county’s financial assistance supervisor.

The county’s next concern for now is where to seat those employees. The department asked the board’s authorization to negotiate for extra office space away from the Government Center. Any new eligibility specialists would join their division colleagues in the department offices, but another HHS division would be pushed out from the campus.

The board could vote to expand the staff but hardly expand the space there.

“We’re going to need to look for more space. We’re simply out,” Ebel said. “You walk through over there (now), and we are really crunched in.”

Commissioner Felix Schmiesing directed Ebel to return with even more comprehensive numbers May 14.

“I think our citizens want to know,” Schmiesing said. “This is a direct result of legislation, and they should have the right to know.”