Shared from the 12/11/2016 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition

Medicaid under ACA changes lives of gun-violence victims


Kenneth Berry with his son Keing, 10. Berry was shot more than 20 years ago but only recently was able to get aMedicaid card —and treatment for nerve pain. IVAN KASHINSKY


Jerold Exson, shot several times in a case of mistaken identity, relied on Medicaid for treatment. ALEX WROBLEWSKI

Kenneth Berry can feel the bullets in his body move. One jiggles down his leg toward his ankle; another presses on his sciatic nerve; a third migrated to his hip.

The three bullets have been inside Berry, 41, for more than two decades, pumped into him when he was a teenager near St. Louis.

Now, after years without health coverage, besieged by untreated nerve pain and hunched over a cane, he finally has the golden ticket to get the care that will bring relief: a Medicaid card.

This is a surprising effect of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health-care law that now faces an uncertain future given the Republican Party’s victory in the presidential election and its control of both houses of Congress.

By funding the expansion of state Medicaid programs beyond the traditional populations of poor mothers and children, the law has brought coverage to tens of thousands of previously uninsured shooting victims, often young African American men, who, once stabilized in emergency rooms, missed out on crucial follow-up care and have endured unremitting effects of nerve injuries, fractured bones, intestinal damage, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The same states that have opted to expand Medicaid suffer high numbers of firearm injuries, including Pennsylvania. The law is profoundly changing how gunshot victims in these states heal from grievous injuries by guaranteeing access to specialists, physical therapy, nursing-home care, antibiotics, wound supplies, and wheelchairs, according to dozens of interviews with trauma surgeons, rehabilitation specialists, anti-violence groups, and shooting victims.

Physicians and officials at Philadelphia hospitals pointed out that under federal law, trauma patients always have received lifesaving care without consideration to insurance status. Hospital social workers work to qualify patients for insurance or aid from groups such as the Pennsylvania Victims Compensation Assistance Program, noted Einstein Health spokeswoman Judy Horwitz.

But after the initial trauma is resolved, Medicaid expansion has made it easier to ensure needed follow-up care.

“It’s aparadoxical world, though,” said Patrick Reilly, trauma chairman at Penn Medicine. “Patients with lesser injuries are discharged to go home, but they’ve traditionally fallen through the cracks. Patients with minor injuries that can be handled in an outpatient setting, if they don’t have insurance they’ll have problems navigating the system. Over time, with the ACA, barriers have been broken down so that it’s less of an issue.”

Researchers at the Urban Institute found that before the Medicaid expansion, uninsured shooting victims were admitted for inpatient care less often than insured victims and received less intensive treatment when they were admitted.

Patients needing bowel diversion surgery, for example, a common necessity for those shot in the abdomen that should be surgically reversed after the intestines heal, instead walked around for months or even years with temporary colostomy bags because many hospitals would not treat them without health insurance.

“I felt deeply ashamed of that,” said Marie Crandall, a former trauma surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, remembering shooting victims whose colostomies she was unauthorized to reverse.

The first bullet that flew through Jerold Exson’s car window pierced him just below his right eye, ricocheted off his jaw and lodged in his throat. Six more bullets shattered his left forearm as he sought to shield his head. Two others went into his chest, and the last gashed his scalp.

The gunman who fired at him on July 13, 2014, had the wrong man.

Seven months earlier, in January 2014, the Affordable Care Act began allowing states to enroll most adults with annual incomes below $16,000 into Medicaid. So far, 31 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to do so, and over 14 million people are newly covered by Medicaid — more than all Americans who gained coverage under the health law’s insurance exchanges.

For Exson, the benefits were immediate. Medicaid paid the $100,000 bill for his two-week hospital stay and gave him access to specialists that even safety-net hospitals have long struggled to provide.

Exson’s arduous recovery has involved seven surgeries and ongoing care from an ear, nose, and throat doctor, an orthopedist, a neurologist, a dentist, a urologist, and a psychiatrist and psychologist.

“You start getting treated like anybody else when you need care, like a regular citizen” said Exson, now 41 and recently employed as a limo driver.

The burden of gun violence falls heavily on young African American men, a group that historically has been shut out from public insurance and remains deeply skeptical of a health system embedded with economic and racial bias.

“These are young men who have very bad experiences with systems,” said Anne Marks, the executive director of Youth Alive, a violence-prevention group in Oakland, Calif.

Studies have found that black trauma victims are 20 percent more likely to die than whites with similar injuries, and uninsured blacks are 80 percent more likely to die.

Faced with barriers and bureaucracy, young men will forgo treatment, say case managers who connect shooting victims with social services.

The opaque rules of managed-care plans can bewilder and frustrate new Medicaid patients. And as the number of new enrollees has surged, states have struggled to provide — and enforce — adequate access to specialists who complain they are woefully underpaid by Medicaid.

Despite the growing pains associated with the expansion of Medicaid, the improvements in care and quality of life for men like Kenneth Berry are evident.

To his disappointment, the orthopedic surgeon he consulted recommended against removing the bullet in his right hip and the one in his shattered shinbone for fear of causing more nerve damage. Instead, the doctor recommended cortisone shots from the pain specialist in Beverly Hills.

“My posture is better, and I’m walking a little faster,” Berry said. “I had been bent over and felt like an 80-year-old man.”

His Medicaid card has replaced uncertainty with security. Without it, he said, “I would still be waiting.”

Staff writer Sam Wood contributed to this article.

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