Budget a Bad Omen for Insuring the Uninsured

As lawmakers prepare for a special session on health care reform and the Governor touts a broad coalition backing universal coverage, the recently enacted budget should serve as a reality check.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his staff has made clear that any reform package emerging from the special session needs to include an “enforceable” requirement for every Californian to obtain health care coverage. This makes sense. Requiring carriers to issue coverage to all applicants without a corresponding mandate to buy is a formula for disaster. People are logical. If it makes economic sense to simply wait until medical services is needed before buying coverage that’s what they’ll do. Of course, when healthier individuals exit an insurance pool, overall claims increase which leads to higher prices for those remaining. This drives more low cost individuals from the pool and premiums move even higher. Eventually you wind up with New Jersey where the average premium for individual health insurance is 350 percent higher than in California.

So the state’s promise of passing an enforceable mandate to buy coverage along with a mandate for carriers to sell that coverage is critical to the overall health care reform package.

One of the tenants of the California of Health Underwriters’ Healthy Solutions health care reform plan is that the state should demonstrate it can meet its current obligations before making new promises. Unfortunately, to date, the state has failed in this regard. As the Healthy Solutions document notes, as many as a million Californians are eligible for state-run health care programs, yet fail to enroll. According to the California Health Interview Survey, 447,000 children are eligible for, but not enrolled in, state health programs. Healthy Solutions calls on the state to first enroll this group before creating new programs.

It seemed the state was going to do just that. Earlier this year the Governor held a press conference at the Northeast Valley Health Corp clinic in the San Fernando Valley promising additional state funds to support enhanced outreach.  According to the Los Angeles Daily News, the commitment was so firm nonprofit health clinics and local government agencies had already increased staff to bring many of those 447,000 into the state’s Healthy Families and MediCal programs. Yet, as part of the deal to pass a budget, an estimated $66 million was cut, resources which health advocacy groups told the Daily News would have enrolled about 100,000 children during the current fiscal year. The Northeast Valley Health Corp had hired nine people in April for this effort. At least half will now be let go and the others reassigned.

So, here’s what we’re about to witness: Legislative Leaders and the Governor will announce plans to expand eligibility for Healthy Families and MediCal. They’ll promise to enforce a requirement for all Californians to obtain health care coverage and offer premium subsidies to those in households with less than 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. At roughly the same time, the Northeast Valley Health Corp will be laying off roughly half of the nine people it hired in April to expand outreach to children and reassigning the rest.

This strikes me as a credibility problem of near Lyndon Johnson-like proportions. As CAHU suggests, the state needs to keep its current promises before making new ones. Yet the budget fiasco of 2007 demonstrates this may be beyond its ability.

At the very least all of this should (but won’t) give advocates of single-payer programs pause. After all, it’s a pretty bad omen when a liberal Legislature and a moderate Governor fail to reach out to 100,000 kids. Imagine what might happen when the pendulum swings to a conservative state government. And the pendulum always swings.