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Worried about the coronavirus, Shirley Neblett said she’s staying home, reluctant even to visit the doctor although she suffers from several serious health conditions including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — putting her at greater risk should she catch the highly contagious virus.

“I was so paranoid,” said Neblett, who lives in West Louisville. “I was telling myself, I wish there was some way someone could come to my home.”

Then she heard from Passport Health Plan, which handles her Medicaid health coverage.

A representative called Neblett to check on her, arranging her first telehealth visit with her doctor who discussed her health issues and renewed a prescription she needed.

“I was able to see my doctor over the phone,” said Neblett, 60, whose son helped set up the visit through his smartphone. “It went wonderfully, it really did.”

Amid concerns about people considered vulnerable to the illness — especially African Americans, who are experiencing higher rates of infection and death from COVID-19 — Passport and other Medicaid health insurers are using their trove of medical records to identify and reach out to members.

Outside managed care companies handle coverage for most of the 1.4 million Kentuckians covered by Medicaid, a federal-state health plan for low-income individuals or those with disabilities. 

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Passport, which does the majority of its business in Jefferson County, said it is focusing on outreach to those members first.

Companies say they are analyzing data about members to identify and contact those who would be considered most at risk from the coronavirus and ask how they can help.

In addition to finding people in need of a doctor or medication, they have located individuals, especially older people, isolated at home and in need of basic aid.

“Some of the heartbreakers are the ones where we get a hold of an elderly person who’s been homebound, doesn’t have transportation, whose cupboards are bare,” said Leon Lamoreaux, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Medicaid president in Kentucky.

In those cases, Anthem — which serves about 140,000 Medicaid members in Kentucky — tries to arrange help through local nonprofit groups, such as food banks.

It also has taken the extra step during the COVID-19 pandemic of contracting with a company to deliver free, frozen meals to some members in need, after getting permission from the state’s Department of Medicaid Services.

“It’s a little unusual for a health insurance company to be providing food,” Lamoreaux said. “We’re doing our best to find those needs and fill those needs.”

Another recent need: Anthem found some foster children covered by Medicaid at home without tools for online learning and arranged to get them Chromebooks.

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WellCare of Kentucky, which covers around 447,000 Medicaid members in Kentucky, said it also is working to contact people about the dangers of COVID-19, especially those at greater risk because of health issues such as cancer, high-risk pregnancies, obesity, diabetes or other chronic conditions, said CEO Bill Jones.

“We advise these members on how to lower their risk of COVID-19 infections and direct them to resources such as testing sites if needed,” Jones said.

He said WellCare also tries to direct people to other sources of help if needed.

Passport said it has long worked to connect people with other agencies that can assist members with needs outside medical care such as food, housing or other services.

“That portion of our work hasn’t changed,” said Dr. Steve Houghland, chief medical officer for Passport, which covers about 320,000 people statewide. “How we do it has changed.”

A particular goal of Passport has been to address the racial disparity in health outcomes, highlighted by the coronavirus, which is taking a higher toll on African Americans.

Passport said it is focusing its initial efforts in the Louisville area, where many of its members are black.

Though African Americans represent about 8.4% of Kentucky’s population, they represent about 15% of the more than 7,000 Kentuckians who have tested positive for the coronavirus and 19% of those who die from it, according to statistics presented Wednesday by Gov. Andy Beshear.

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Data on coronavirus deaths in the US shows a disturbing trend: The virus is killing black Americans at a higher rate. Activists working to level out racial disparities in healthcare, food access and safety are urging systemic change. (April 10)

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Dr. Wayne Tuckson, a Louisville physician and a past president of the Greater Louisville Medical Society, said he is pleased to learn of such efforts around racial disparity when it comes to the coronavirus.

“I think this is fantastic,” said Tuckson, the host of Kentucky Health, a weekly public affairs show on KET. “This is the sort of proactive effort that needs to be made in order to address the great equity divide we’re seeing with COVID-19.”

Health officials have cited higher poverty rates and a historic lack of access to health care as among the reasons African Americans suffer from a higher rate of conditions that put them at risk, including cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Tuckson said African Americans also tend to hold a higher percentage of “essential” jobs that don’t allow for working at home, such as custodial or sanitation work, mass transit or grocery cashiers, increasing their chances of exposure to the coronavirus.

“We know the patients who are at increased risk,” he said. “We need to kick it up.”

The health insurance companies say they use basic data on members including medical records and prescription medication to identify those at risk. 

Of its 120,000 members in Jefferson County, Passport identified more than 26,000 at moderate to high risk of severe illness should they contract the coronavirus. Then, they put a team of employees to work making calls, focusing on those individuals.

“This was kind of all hands on deck,” said Passport spokesman Ben Jackey. “We do want to make sure that none of these members was left unattended.”

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At Anthem, Lamoreaux said staff are focusing on its highest-risk members but hope eventually to reach all of them.

“‘We’re doing it by tiers, trying to work with the highest risk first,” he said. “We’re just going to keep working our way down through the levels of risk.”

Many of those calls involve helping people set up telehealth consultations with providers, which is proving to be enormously popular with members during the pandemic when people are urged to stay home, Lamoreaux said.

Last year, Anthem had just from 339 telehealth visits in April with its Medicaid members, Lamoreaux said. This year, that jumped to 28,511 during April, he said.

Neblett said she appreciated the call from a Passport representative and the chance to try out telehealth.

Meanwhile, she said, she’s resigned to staying home where she passes time by keeping her house clean and sanitized, among other activities.

“I read my Bible, I pray a lot,” she said. “All you can do is hope and pray they come up with a vaccine soon.”

Reach Deborah Yetter at or 502-582-4228. Find her on Twitter at @d_yetter. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today:

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Passport, other Medicaid plans seeking out people most at risk if they contract COVID-19 – Courier Journal