CHICAGO – Cook County has unveiled a new program officials say will help thousands of uninsured county residents afford health care, providing eligible residents access to primary and specialty care through the Cook County Health and Hospitals System (CCHHS).

The concept for this program grew out of talks among CCHHS, county commissioners and the Cook County health care task force, county officials said. Approximately 900,000 people in Illinois - including a majority of whom live in Cook County - remain uninsured because they are unable to afford commercial plans despite employer or federal subsidies. County officials pinned the blame for this on failure to enroll in a public health plan for which they are eligible, or because of their immigration status.

CCHHS CEO Jay Shannon said this lack of health coverage has a large impact on people and their health.

“The Cook County Health & Hospital Systems never turns a patient away due to their inability to pay,” Shannon told The Cook County Record. 

Shannon said the number of people enrolled in the CCHHS assistance program, CareLink, "demonstrates an obvious need for financial assistance programs."

"The program will be especially important for those who are ineligible for insurance or those who earn slightly too much to qualify for Medicaid and would otherwise have to make financial trade-offs to afford health care, like choose between paying rent, buying food or paying medical bills," he said. "The program has received broad community support.”

The coordinated health program will provide eligible residents with a membership card, member handbook and an assigned “medical home,” as well as a primary care physician at one of CCHHS’ community health centers. All Cook County residents who earn up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and are not otherwise eligible for public insurance are eligible for the program.

CCHHS has offered financial assistance services to patients who do not have the means to pay for care for a number of years. Last year, CCHHS provided more than $400 million in uncompensated care, and Shannon said the county expects the additional coverage for the new program will be paid out of savings generated from a decreased need to cover uncompensated care.

“We budget for those costs annually and we expect the care we provide within the new program to be covered by what we budget for,” Shannon said. “Our goal is to provide a greater amount of less expensive primary and preventive care and thereby lessen the likelihood of the need for costly, preventable hospital care. Over time, we hope our costs to care will decrease because we will be able to keep our patients healthier and mitigate expensive chronic disease complications and other conditions responsive to good primary care.”

CareLink currently offers discounts on medical care via a sliding scale based upon a patient’s income to individuals who are uninsured or unable to afford commercial insurance deductibles. That program has almost 40,000 participants.

"For the initial roll-out of the new program, CCHHS plans to transition eligible CareLink members into the new program," Shannon said. "More than 95 percent of CareLink members will be eligible. This will allow us to ensure the program is working the way we intend it to before opening it up to a broader audience.”

To help ensure the success and safety of the new program, members will have to reapply every year, in the event that their financial status, income level or residential address has changed.

“The new program will be centered on a primary-care medical home, so the care received by a member will all be guided by their primary care physician and based on their medical judgment,” Shannon said. “All medical care will be provided at CCHHS facilities, making it easy to track everything within our electronic medical record system.”

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