PHOENIX — The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System “Freedom to Work” program is designed to let people with disabilities earn a steady income and continue receiving Medicaid benefits to pay for the additional costs related to their disabilities. However, the way the program determines whether someone’s income makes them eligible could put those very jobs at risk, disability advocates tell the 12 News I-Team.
“This care keeps them alive. They cannot lose care because of a faulty policy like this,” said Asim Dietrich, a staff attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law
Freedom to Work is available to U.S. citizens and qualified immigrants who live in Arizona and work and pay taxes. There are income limits, and income eligibility is determined based on monthly income. It is not averaged based on the gross, or annual income.
“So there’s an issue with policy there,” Dietrich said. “I do think it needs to change, I think the monthly income needs to be a monthly average.”
For people who are salaried and are paid every two weeks, or 26 times per year – any month that has three pay periods could lead to that person losing coverage in just that month, as 12 News digital journalist Gabe Trujillo learned earlier this year.
“I was sort of taken aback, I have had these benefits for years,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo was diagnosed with a rare form of polio in 1997, and since then has been in a wheelchair. He works at 12 News as part of the Freedom to Work program. He has health insurance through his employer but has additional disability benefits to cover costs like maintenance for his wheelchair and his daily attendants who help him get to and from work.
In November, he received a letter informing him that he would be ineligible for benefits through the Freedom to Work program in the month of January, but would be eligible again in February.
“As a quadriplegic, you definitely rely on others for just your day-to-day activities,” Trujillo said. “To be without personal care for a month is almost a life-threatening situation that could happen for me.”
Dietrich is also a member of the Freedom to Work program and, like Trujillo, receives long-term care benefits through the program to cover the added costs of being in a wheelchair.
“If someone needs long-term care services, they can’t afford to go a month without those services,” Dietrich said.
A spokesperson for AHCCCS was unavailable for an interview but said in an email:
For programs like Freedom to Work, that are not based on MAGI (modified adjusted gross income), the income is counted in the month it is received, so in the instance described of five weeks and three pay periods, the customer could be determined to be over the income for that particular month, then eligible again until the next month with three pay periods.
Trujillo has filed an appeal with AHCCCS in an effort to continue coverage through the month of January but hopes the system changes the monthly income calculation.
“Since I became sick and became in a wheelchair – that didn’t change my goals one bit,” Trujillo said. “My disability isn’t even hindering me from being successful, it’s this arbitrary rule.”