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Preventing the implosion of the Los Angeles County safety-net

L.A. County expands no-cost healthcare

By Anna Gorman
Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2011

In one of the largest expansions of health coverage to the uninsured, Los Angeles County is enrolling hundreds of thousands of residents in a publicly funded treatment program and setting the stage for the national healthcare overhaul.

The county hopes to register as many as 550,000 patients and is assigning them to medical clinics for services at no cost to them.

Under President Obama's controversial healthcare overhaul, millions more uninsured Californians will be eligible for Medicaid — the healthcare program for the poor — beginning in 2014. Even as the debate over the law continues in Washington, California is starting that expansion now and using federal dollars to do so. Altogether, the state expects to receive $2.3 billion to expand and modernize its Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal, now available only to certain low-income residents.

In L.A. County, the stakes are high. In 2014, the newly insured county residents will be able to seek treatment wherever they want. To keep them with the county, health leaders recognize that they must make the system one of choice rather than of last resort. Otherwise, the only patients left will be illegal immigrants and others still ineligible for public coverage.

"Our survival depends on it," said Mitchell Katz, director of the county Department of Health Services. Unless the healthcare system improves, he said, "if people have choice, they won't choose us and the system will implode."

Health workers began signing patients up for a program called Healthy Way L.A. in July and so far have enrolled 24,000, many of whom are receiving services. County residents are eligible if they are between the ages of 19 and 64, citizens or permanent residents of five years and earn less than 133% of the federal poverty level (about $14,500 for an individual and $29,700 for a family of four).

The coverage is not insurance and cannot be used outside of L.A. County, but it does give patients the ability to receive free primary and specialty care, mental health services, chronic disease management, medication and emergency treatment. Most of the enrollment is being done when patients go to the county's network of hospitals and clinics.

Over the next two years, the county will pay half the cost for Healthy Way L.A. — or about $300 million — and the federal government will pay the other half. By 2014, when the patients become eligible for Medi-Cal, the federal government will pick up the entire tab, which will help bolster the financially strapped county's health system.

http://www.latimes.com/health/la-me-health-reform-la-20111010,0,4242519.story

Comment: 

By Don McCanne, MD

This admirable effort in Los Angeles County to include more uninsured adults in its health services programs demonstrates some of the complexities that arise in trying to coordinate health care financing and health care delivery under our current dysfunctional, fragmented system that is being expanded by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Traditionally, the county has been the health care provider of last resort. If we had a financing system that covered everyone, there would be no need to support separate financing of a welfare program for low-income individuals, though there would still be a need to be sure that adequate facilities were available in areas with high rates of poverty that might not attract private health care providers.

Between this need to ensure adequate capacity in underserved areas, and the anticipation that there will still be tens of millions of uninsured individuals, forward thinking county health administrators are wise to try to work within the current system, with the anticipated changes under the Affordable Care Act, to be sure that care will be available for these underserved populations. The efforts in Los Angeles County can serve as a model for other counties throughout the nation, though the task is difficult because of the budget constraints that states and counties now face.

So how is Los Angeles County going to finance the safety-net in an unstable environment during the health reform transition? The first phase is to expand the safety-net to cover uninsured low-income adults. This is not an insurance program, but it relies on a contribution of federal funds that would pay about half of the expansion in clinic services for this population. Thus it expands the traditional role of the county as the provider of last resort, with the addition of much needed federal funds.

By providing these patients with a primary care medical home now, the transition to a program financed completely by the expansion of Medicaid will be much smoother.

But then what? The 100 percent federal financing of the Medicaid program applies only to the expansion of coverage for these newly enrolled low-income adults, and it is only temporary, designed as an enticement to states to roll out their Medicaid expansions under ACA. States are already facing severe fiscal problems in trying to finance their Medicaid programs, so what will they do when the extra federal subsidies end for these state programs with greatly expanded enrollments?

This policy nightmare was created by our politicians who decided above all to protect the markets for the private insurance industry catering to all of the population sectors that are above poverty levels. For those in poverty, they decided to use chum money to get the states to expand their Medicaid programs, but then revert to the chronic underfunding that characterizes this program, but which would now be compounded by expanded enrollment.

What would have happened had our legislators instead enacted a single payer national health program? Full federal funding would have been provided for these low-income individuals on an equal basis as with everyone else. Income would play no role in a person's ability to clear the financial barriers to health care. The safety-net facilities provided by the counties would be fully funded by the program.

Because of a lack of interest by the private health care sector in serving regions with high poverty levels, it is likely that the counties would continue as administrators of these institutions, but they would do so knowing that adequate federal funding would always be there through the single payer national health program.

Think of how much easier the task would be, under a single payer system, for Mitchell Katz, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, to prevent the implosion of the county administered health facilities, which we will need regardless of whatever financing system we end up with. But then, Mitchell Katz isn't looking for a way to make his job easier; he is looking for a way to be sure that health care will always be there for everyone who needs it.