Getting a Head Start on Medi-Cal Expansion

by David Gorn

TOPIC ALERT:

For a program no one's really heard of, this one is pretty successful.

Counties started enrolling people into the Low-Income Health Program in July 2011,  and four months later (at the most recent count in November) about 260,000 Californians were enrolled in it, according to Linda Leu, a health care policy analyst with Health Access California.

"It is a really great opportunity for those who are low-income, and who have been left out of programs like Medicaid [or, in California, Medi-Cal]," Leu said.

And with an acronym like LIHP, the perfect time to publicize the program is on Valentine's Day, she said.

Health Access is planning events today in five California cities, from Coachella to Sacramento.

The reason for starting LIHP, Leu said, is to get a jump on the 2014 Medi-Cal expansion, so that counties aren't swamped with millions of new enrollees all at once. The goal is to fashion a smooth transition into the insurance expansion provisions of the Affordable Care Act when they go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

"What happens with the newly enrolled is that they're automatically rolled into Medi-Cal in 2014," Leu said. "So the benefit is, the more people can get enrolled now, the easier it will be, come 2014."

The state Department of Health Care Services is facilitating the transition, but the price tag is being picked up jointly by federal and county governments, Leu said.

"Counties are being asked to put up the match," Leu said. "We tried to look at programs like Healthy Families, where it was so hard to get people enrolled at the start."

The level of income eligibility varies from county to county, she said, for people between 133% and 200% of the federal poverty level.

In effect, counties are starting up a program that will be discontinued in less than two years, but that's not really the point, Leu said.

"It started as a transitional program, so it's not wasted work in the least," Leu said. "We have to start building the capacity of the safety net, in order to ramp up for 2014. This is intended to be intermediary."

Enrolling early could also be a bonus for beneficiaries, she said. Not only do they get coverage in advance of Medi-Cal expansion, but since they're enrolled in a medical home model (with a specific clinic and specific care team), they'll have clear access once the 2014 expansion hits.

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