CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State health officials say they will delay a plan to change the way many West Virginians get Medicaid benefits.
The Department of Health and Human Resources will hold off until Jan. 1 transferring tens of thousands of West Virginians to managed-care programs, spokesman John Law said.
"We have listened to our colleagues and partners and have agreed to move forward more slowly in order to ensure a smooth transition for our Medicaid members and health-care providers," Law said in a prepared statement.
Lawmakers, providers and advocates had raised concerns about the planned changes to the state/federal health insurance program for the poor.
The DHHR wants to transfer the Medicaid benefits of roughly 55,000 people who receive Supplemental Security Income to three companies -- Carelink, The Health Plan and UniCare. That change had been planned for Dec. 1.
Also, about 160,000 people who receive cash assistance would have their behavioral-health and children's dental benefits transferred to the companies. That changed was planned for Nov. 1. The group already receives medical benefits through the three managed-care organizations.
"We believe this program will offer better coordination in the delivery of medical and behavioral-health services that will result in improved health outcomes and overall coordination of care for Medicaid members," Law said.
Lobbyist Randy Cox, head of the West Virginia HMO Association, said the companies are eager to start the plans.
"We'd like to get going," he said, "but we understand the [Medicaid] commissioner's position, and we accept it."
Criticism of the transition has come from several angles. Health providers -- including dentists and behavioral-health centers -- say it would cause administrative headaches. They also complained that the DHHR didn't seek their input before starting such a sweeping shift.
Managed care requires people to visit doctors, dentists and other health professionals who belong to a managed-care company's network, so critics also warn that Medicaid recipients could lose access to care if too few providers join the networks -- especially in rural areas.
Advocates have worried that the transition could disrupt health-care services. Many SSI recipients, whose health care is very expensive, are severely disabled or chronically mentally ill.