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California's health insurance lessons for the U.S.

The State of Health Insurance in California: Findings from the 2009 California Health Interview Survey

By Shana Alex Lavarreda, PhD, MPP, Livier Cabezas, MPAff, Ken Jacobs, Dylan H. Roby, PhD, Nadereh Pourat, PhD, Gerald F. Kominski, PhD
UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, February 2012

Excerpts (These paragraphs are not contiguous in the report.)

Medi-Cal, Healthy Families, and Medicare provided insurance coverage to 9.3 million people in California for all or part of 2009. Despite the presence of these state and federally run public programs, there are still many low-income, uninsured Californians who do not qualify for coverage. Additionally, there are children and their parents, people with disabilities or medical needs, and elderly Californians who are eligible for public insurance programs but who are not enrolled.

Only three-fourths of uninsured Latinos will be able to gain coverage under ACA. A slightly higher percentage (43.1%) will be eligible for the Medi-Cal expansion, but far fewer will participate in the Exchange, either with subsidies (21%) or without (9.2%). The rest will be ineligible to participate in the coverage expansions due to their citizenship status (26.8%).

The exclusions embedded in ACA will likely increase the health insurance disparities between U.S. citizens and non-citizens over time. If these issues remain unaddressed, California runs the risk of increasing racial/ethnic inequities in health care access and outcomes.

Medicare beneficiaries without Medi-Cal or a supplemental source of coverage were more likely to report delays in obtaining medical care or necessary prescription drugs.

Not all types of health insurance are equal in their impact on access. Significant variations in premiums, cost sharing, and benefits exist between employment-based and individually purchased insurance, further complicated by the high-deductible plans that exist in both markets. Medi-Cal and Healthy Families coverage have very low or no premiums and cost sharing, but funding shortfalls often threaten eligibility, benefits, and provider participation in these programs.

The uninsured were also more likely than the insured to forgo or delay needed medical care due to costs or lack of insurance; 5.7% of those with employment-based insurance reported such barriers, compared to 19.5% of the uninsured.

The existing racial and ethnic disparities in health insurance coverage and resulting access to the health care system will be exacerbated as health care reform is implemented, with the very serious possibility that more than one million California residents (including non-citizen children) will be left to rely on safety net providers who may not receive enough money to care for the residual uninsured.

According to the 2009 California Health Interview Survey, approximately 92.7% of all children who were eligible for Medi-Cal actually signed up in 2009, and a lower percentage of adults ages 19 to 64 who were eligible actually enrolled (85.0%). That represents more than 215,000 children who could have had health insurance through a low-cost, public program but who did not enroll. In addition, another 331,000 adults were estimated to be eligible for Medi-Cal but remained uninsured. Although Healthy Families does not enroll adults, a smaller number of uninsured children are eligible for the program. Approximately 189,000 of uninsured children are estimated to be eligible for Healthy Families but are not enrolled – 22.2% of the eligible population.

Variations in health care use, as well as reports of forgoing needed care or delaying it due to costs and presence of medical debt by type of insurance, are likely due to differences in deductible levels and cost sharing and benefits. These variations indicate that health insurance does not fully address the financial barriers to access. Among the publicly insured, the presence of access barriers and financial debt illustrate the challenges the Medi-Cal and Healthy Families programs have to overcome despite the perennial funding shortfalls that threaten eligibility, benefits, and provider participation in these programs.

The continuing increase in premiums is likely to increase the number of high-deductible plans not accompanied by savings accounts, increase cost sharing and lead to more medical debt, increase the ranks of those who forgo or delay needed medical care, and potentially reduce timely doctor visits and increase emergency room visits.

In October 2010, California became the first state in the nation to pass legislation establishing the California Health Benefit Exchange, a fundamental component of the infrastructure of ACA. The Board faces numerous challenges over the next two years, including how to coordinate eligibility determination and enrollment processes with state and county agencies, whether to standardize co-payments and deductibles within each of the four tiers of health plans to be offered in the Exchange as a means of facilitating comparison shopping by consumers, and providing seamless transitions for individuals between Medi-Cal and the Exchange resulting from changing income, to name just a few.

Based on considerable evidence from previous expansion of public programs, including experience with individual mandates and penalties for remaining uninsured in Massachusetts, ACA will not result in 100% enrollment rates among those who are eligible for Medi-Cal or Exchange subsidies. Furthermore, we estimate that as of 2009, 1.2 million California residents will not be eligible under ACA due to their citizenship status. As a result, despite the significant reductions in the number of uninsured that are anticipated in 2014, those who remain uninsured are likely to strain the capacity of safety net providers in certain areas of the state. Our findings suggest that ACA could have a devastating effect on counties such as Los Angeles, where 20.7% of the currently uninsured, or nearly 450,000 individuals, will not be eligible for insurance under ACA. The net effect of ACA of reducing subsidies to hospitals for uncompensated care, reducing the number of uninsured, and increasing subsidies for community health centers could leave counties such as Los Angeles more vulnerable than they are now in meeting the demand for indigent care. This geographic disparity in the distribution of uninsured Californians may temper some of the considerable overall benefits anticipated under ACA.

The State of Health Insurance in California (114 pages): http://www.healthpolicy.ucla.edu/pubs/files/shic2009report.pdf

Comment: 

By Don McCanne, MD

This highly informative UCLA policy report on the status of health insurance in California confirms that coverage and access have grown more dire, made even worse by the recession. Although the report explains how some of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act will provide limited improvements, it is also clear that we will fall far short of meeting all of our health care needs.

Although the report is silent on the wisdom of the financing infrastructure of the Affordable Care Act, we already know that the model is irreparably defective. The multitude of corrective patches that might be proposed would still leave us with unaffordable underinsurance as the new standard in America, along with a chronically underfunded public program for the poor. We need to replace the ACA model with a program that works - a single payer national health program.