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Health & Spirit

No car, no care? Medicaid transportation at risk in some states

JoNel Aleccia, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

EVERETT, Wash. -- Unable to walk or talk, barely able to see or hear, 5-year-old Maddie Holt waits in her wheelchair for a ride to the hospital.

The 27-pound girl is dressed in polka-dot pants and a flowered shirt for the trip, plus a red headband with a sparkly bow, two wispy blond ponytails poking out on top.

Her parents can't drive her. They both have disabling vision problems; and, besides, they can't afford a car. When Maddie was born in 2012 with the rare and usually fatal genetic condition called Zellweger syndrome, Meagan and Brandon Holt, then in their early 20s, were plunged into a world of overwhelming need -- and profound poverty.

"We lost everything when Maddie got sick," said Meagan Holt, now 27.

Multiple times each month, Maddie sees a team of specialists at Seattle Children's Hospital who treat her for the condition that has left her nearly blind and deaf, with frequent seizures and life-threatening liver problems.

The only way Maddie can make the trip, more than an hour each way, is through a service provided by Medicaid, the nation's health insurance program started more than 50 years ago as a safety net for the poor.

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Called non-emergency medical transportation, or NEMT, the benefit is as old as Medicaid itself. From its inception, in 1966, Medicaid has been required to transport people to and from such medical services as mental health counseling sessions, substance abuse treatment, dialysis, physical therapy, adult day care and, in Maddie's case, visits to specialists.

"This is so important," said Holt. "Now that she's older and more disabled, it's crucial."

More than 1 in 5 Americans -- about 74 million people -- now rely on Medicaid to pay for their health care. The numbers have grown dramatically since the program expanded in 32 states plus the District of Columbia to cover prescription drugs, health screening for children, breast and cervical cancer treatment and nursing home care.

With a Republican administration vowing to trim Medicaid, Kaiser Health News is examining how the U.S. has evolved into a Medicaid Nation, where millions of Americans rely on the program, directly and indirectly, often unknowingly.

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