COLUMBUS, Ohio - Many low-income state residents can now sign up for the Medicaid health program through a new website, though it's unclear how soon their applications will get finalized.
The online enrollment option became available Monday to children, pregnant women and adults who are newly eligible under an expansion of the federal-state program for the poor and disabled.
Medicaid applications through the website, benefits.ohio.gov , reached 1,165 by mid-afternoon on Monday, the state said.
County caseworkers will have to verify income and other data on most of the applications, though the enrollment process is expected to be more automated and seamless in the months ahead, said Greg Moody, the director of the Governor's Office of Health Transformation.
Part of the hang-up is due to the federal eligibility system, HealthCare.gov . The state's system is supposed to interact with the federal system, but some of the connections are on hold pending the federal system's technical glitches.
"Until the federal system is working well, many of these cases will have to resolve at the county level," Moody said in a telephone interview Monday.
He said the state had anticipated the issue and counties received additional funds in the state budget to handle the extra workload.
The state's website allows potential enrollees to start their Medicaid applications online without having to visit county offices, where many low-income residents apply for food stamps, cash assistance and other social services. That's expected to help cut the processing time.
Most online applicants won't find out immediately whether they are eligible for Medicaid. But, Moody said, "it will be, we believe, significantly faster than had they relied on the old process."
He said it's too soon to say what the average time will be for consumers to get enrolled in Medicaid under the new system.
At the county offices, workers are anticipating their cases to increase in waves.
"While our work initially is going to be greater, ultimately it will make it easier on the counties," said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services county directors' association.
Officials estimate roughly 366,000 Ohio residents may qualify for Medicaid under the program's expansion.
The federal health care law expanded Medicaid to those with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level -- $15,856 for an individual or $32,499 for a family of four. The main beneficiaries are expected to be low-income adults with no children living at home.
Republican Gov. John Kasich's administration moved forward with extending the program in October, but Monday marked the first day people could enroll under the expansion. Coverage begins Jan. 1.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks and its partners are sending potential Medicaid enrollees to the website in addition to giving them paper applications for the program, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the association. The organization is among a consortium of groups that's walking people through the new insurance marketplaces under the federal health care law.
Hamler-Fugitt said the groups are encouraging people to apply early to the Medicaid program if they want coverage by Jan. 1.