Project targets health care for uninsured

WILLMAR -- In the three months since Amanda Kotnik-Collins joined Western Minnesota Legal Services as a health care outreach worker, she's heard some heart-wrenching stories from people without health insurance.

WILLMAR -- In the three months since Amanda Kotnik-Collins joined Western Minnesota Legal Services as a health care outreach worker, she's heard some heart-wrenching stories from people without health insurance.

Kotnik-Collins works with a new service, the Minnesota Healthcare Outreach Project, whose goal is to identify the uninsured and help them apply for a state health care program.

"There is a huge need for it," she said.

The two-year project, which began at the end of February, covers 10 counties in southwestern Minnesota -- Big Stone, Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Lac qui Parle, Lincoln, Lyon, Meeker, Renville, Swift and Yellow Medicine.

It's part of a statewide initiative by the Minnesota Council of Health Plans to increase the number of Minnesotans with health care coverage.


"As we did our strategic planning, what we became more and more concerned about was so many individuals are eligible for a public program but don't know they're eligible," said Julie Brunner, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans.

"The goal we have is really to see to it that all Minnesotans have coverage."

The nonprofit health plan association is investing $438,000 in the initiative, which includes grants to six agencies for doing outreach work in 34 mostly rural counties.

Western Minnesota Legal Services has a regional goal of helping 150 to 200 families through the application and eligibility process for one of the state's publicly funded health care programs.

Minnesota consistently has had one of the lowest uninsured populations in the United States. Even so, there are still 374,000 Minnesotans without health insurance -- the majority of them children. The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that at least 60 percent of the uninsured might be eligible for MinnesotaCare, Medical Assistance or General Assistance Medical Care.

Connecting them with these programs is the challenge, Kotnik-Collins said.

Many people, for instance, don't know that working families can qualify for MinnesotaCare with an income of up to 275 percent of the federal poverty standard, she said.

"A lot of people aren't aware of this program. You have to keep getting the word out," she said. "A lot of people assume they're not eligible. Sometimes it's the first time they even hear about these programs."


One of her roles is to help screen people to determine which program they're most likely to be eligible for.

Because the application paperwork often can be daunting, Kotnik-Collins also helps people through the process of filling out the forms and collecting the proper documentation.

This step is important because applications might be denied if there's missing or incomplete information, Kotnik-Collins said.

Nearly all the clients she's been working with have successfully qualified for a state program, she said. "I've only had one denial so far."

Most of these people are working but don't have health insurance and often can't afford to buy private coverage, she said.

In some cases, they've forgone needed medical care or prescription drugs because they can't afford them, she said. "My heart goes out to them."

Since joining the outreach project at the end of February, Kotnik-Collins has been working to spread the word. She has sent out dozens of letters to county agencies, businesses and schools in the 10 counties she covers.

She also has traveled to meet with key officials and hand out posters and brochures.


"It's starting to be more widely known," she said.

Brunner, of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, said data will be collected over the next two years to measure the effectiveness of the outreach project.

"If we could just get the word out to people who are already eligible for coverage in current programs, we could move the dial on getting more adults and children covered," she said.

Brunner said it will be important to keep the momentum going beyond 2010, when funding ends for the health plan council's project.

"I think the big challenge is going to be at the end of two years, when folks are going to want to continue this. We're going to have to figure it out," she said. "Hopefully the Legislature will reinvest in supporting some of this outreach work."

For more information or for free assistance with the screening and application process for Minnesota's public health care programs, call Western Minnesota Legal Services at 235-9600 or 1-888-360-3666 or visit the legal aid office at 415 Seventh St. S.W., Willmar.

What To Read Next
Get Local