ACLU files federal lawsuit over Medicaid benefits

PROVIDENCE – The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit that seeks class action status on behalf of people who say they were unfairly removed from a state-run Medicaid program due to flaws in the much-maligned “UHIP” computer system.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday for the ACLU by Ellen Saideman, a Barrington-based private attorney with expertise in disability law. The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge William Smith.

The lawsuit cites the circumstances of two plaintiffs who say they were hurt financially when they were removed without notice from a state program that provides low-income and disabled Rhode Islanders with benefits including the monthly premium for Medicare Part B.

The state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project was supposed to efficiently determine whether people were eligible for state-funded programs, including Medicaid and food assistance. According to the lawsuit, once the new computer system went live, Rhode Island Legal Services began getting calls from clients who said federal authorities had told them the state had stopped paying their Medicare premiums.

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The affected program is the Medicaid Payment Program, which is provided through Medicaid for people who are elderly or who have disabilities and who are eligible to receive Medicare. Under the MPP program, Medicaid pays their costs to participate in Medicare.

For the individuals, this is a significant financial benefit, according to Saideman, and they have unfairly been disqualified from the program because of the problems with the computer system. The Medicare Part B supplement, which can be as much as $134 a month, represents a significant amount for low-income individuals, the lawsuit states.

One of the plaintiffs is Christopher Scherwitz, a disabled resident of Johnston. In June, his MPP benefits stopped, and the Social Security Administration began taking $134 out of his benefit check each month, according to the lawsuit. As of this month, he receives $889 monthly in federal disability payments as income.

He never received advance notice from the state that his benefits would stop, Saideman said. He’s had to borrow money from his mother, she said, and this has put financial pressure on her household. “Mr. Scherwitz and his mother worry that their utilities will be shut off because she has been unable to make the payments,” the lawsuit states.

The argument made in the case is that despite federal law, the state did not notify the individuals that it would be terminating their benefits.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would restore the eligibility of the individuals, and restore their payments retroactively to when they were removed from the program.

Beyond the two plaintiffs identified in the lawsuit, “thousands” of Rhode Islanders are potentially affected because they are in a similar situation, Saideman said.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Email her at macdonald@pbn.com