Stacks of coins Many states areimplementing policies that let health plans share in any savingsthey can demonstrate, providing motivation to address factors suchas literacy and poor housing, which can drive up health costs.(Photo: Shutterstock)

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Emilia Ford became pregnant at 15 and, after her daughter wasborn, dropped out of high school.

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As she held down different jobs during the past decade —including housekeeping and working in a relative's retailstore — she always thought about going for her GED to show she methigh school academic skills.

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But the Brookhaven, Pa., woman needed assistance finding tutorsand paying for the set of four tests, which cost $20 each.

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She found help from an unexpected source: her Medicaid health plan.

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Related: The connection between social determinants andhealth care costs

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AmeriHealth Caritas, a Philadelphia-based insurer with 2 millionMedicaid members in Pennsylvania and five other states, helpsconnect members with nonprofit groups providing GED testpreparation classes, offers telephone coaching to keep members ontrack and pays the testing fees.

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Expanded scope

Ford is one of 62 plan members who have earned a GED certificatesince the benefit began in 2013.

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Emilia Ford earned her GED with the help of her PennsylvaniaMedicaid health plan, AmeriHealth Caritas. She now works for thehealth plan, helping others get their GEDs. In the past year, Fordhas helped 12 plan members earn their GEDs and she's coaching 30more.

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“I could not believe this was something a health insurancecompany would do,” said Ford, 25. “I thought health insurers onlypaid for medical costs.”

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Not anymore.

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Medicaid health plans are starting to pay for non-traditionalservices such as meals, transportation, housing and other forms ofassistance to improve members' health and reduce medical costs.

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That change follows efforts by state Medicaid programs to givehealth plans financial incentives to control spending, said JillRosenthal, senior program director for the National Academy forState Health Policy.

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Rather than continue to pay a set fee each month to covermembers' health costs, many states are implementing policies thatlet health plans share in any savings they can demonstrate. Thatprovides motivation for insurers to address factors such asliteracy and poor housing, which can drive up health costs.

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“Health plans now have incentives for them to find the rootcauses of problems that will reduce costs that will benefit theplan, its beneficiaries and the states,” Rosenthal said.

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The health-education connection

AmeriHealth Caritas CEO Paul Tufano said studies show peoplewith lower educational levels tend to be in poorer health. “Helpingmembers attain their GED can be incredibly consequential for themto live the kind of life they want to live,” he said.

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But Tufano acknowledged that only a small fraction of people whoneed the assistance reach out for it. About 1,000 members havestarted GED training through the insurer in Pennsylvania,Louisiana, South Carolina and Delaware.

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“Many of our members are just surviving to keep their heads overwater, holding on to jobs and dealing with issues like safehousing, access to food and transportation to get to work ordoctor,” he said.

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AmeriHealth Caritas is one of just a handful of Medicaid healthplans that offer a GED benefit.

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WellCare, which covers 2.2 million Medicaid recipients inMissouri, Nebraska, Georgia, Kentucky, Hawaii and Illinois, had 226members sit for their GED exams since the plan began paying for itin 2012, said spokeswoman Alissa Lawver. The Tampa-based plan doesnot know how many passed.

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A Wellcare survey of its Medicaid adult members in Georgia in2012 found that about 20 percent did not have a high school diplomaor a GED.

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“There is a significant relationship between education andhealth,” Wendy Morriarty, president of WellCare's 'Ohana HealthPlan in Hawaii, said when launching the benefit in 2016. “A GED isa tool that can lead to increased opportunities for our members toattend college, seek higher-paying jobs and find stable housing.This benefit has the ability to improve the health and well-beingof local families and communities.”

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Advocates for Medicaid praise the health plans' efforts.

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“I think this sets the standard for the unique role of Medicaidmanaged care in bridging health care and social services,” saidSara Rosenbaum, health law and policy professor at GeorgeWashington University.

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Ford said having a coach at AmeriHealth walk her through thesign-up process for GED classes, help her register for tests andcall her twice a week to keep her motivated was vital to hersuccess. The program also offered child care and transportation tothe prep classes and exam sites. She started in May 2017, takingtwo classes a week, and passed her exams last summer.

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When she finished, AmeriHealth hired Ford as an intern in itsmember services department. In December 2017, the insurer hiredFord to a full-time position — with health benefits — to work as aGED coach for other Medicaid members.

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The job meant Ford became the first of nine siblings to get offMedicaid and find employer-based coverage.

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“I feel like I was saved from the struggle I was going through,”Ford said. “This is something big that my family was proud of.”While she was growing up, she said, her father drove a school busand her mom took care of the kids.

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In the past year, Ford has helped 12 plan members earn theirGEDs and she's coaching 30 more.

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“I can tell them I have been where you are on the other side ofthe phone and can share my experience and it helps give them moretrust in me,” Ford said.

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“The hardest thing is not giving up even after failing a testand being able to get back up and push yourself and get over thediscouragement,” she said. “There is always something good that youcan take from a bad situation.”

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Kaiser Health News isa nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is aneditorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation,which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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