The Covered California board Thursday approved a $320 million budget for 2017 that adds money for marketing, website upgrades and outreach to disadvantaged communities.
The state health exchange’s budget adds $2 million to boost marketing in Asian languages. It also earmarks $7.25 million for the exchange’s Navigator program, in which community organizations across the state help underserved groups sign up for coverage. That’s a cut of $2.75 million from this year.
But it’s a smaller cut than was proposed in a draft of the budget that circulated last month, which would have slashed funding for the Navigator program in half — from $10 million to $5 million. That plan drew criticism from consumer advocates, who said it would hinder the progress that has been made in some low-income communities.
Consumer advocates said they would have preferred a complete restoration of Navigator funding but were pleased to see at least some of the planned cut had been rescinded.
Sonya Vasquez, policy director for Community Health Councils, a nonprofit health promotion organization, told exchange board members that community groups working with the Navigator program offer enrollment assistance and help navigate people through the complexities of health coverage.
“Especially with the looming immigrant wrap that will be coming, it is important to have those that understand both sides: Medi-Cal and Covered California,” she said, referring to legislation recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that could potentially pave the way for undocumented immigrants to buy unsubsidized coverage from the exchange.
Consumer advocates also praised a decision by the board to restore $750,000 to a partnership with Health Consumer Alliance, a legal collaborative that helps consumers file grievances and appeals. Last month, Peter V. Lee, the executive director of Covered California, announced plans to terminate that partnership and replace it with a $2 million in-house ombudsman program.
But after revising the budget, the board said the ombudsman program and the work being done by Health Consumer Alliance could complement each other.
The biggest addition to the budget is an increase of $6.5 million to maintain and improve CalHEERS, the web-based system that determines eligibility for health plans.
The 2017 budget, smaller than this year’s, reflects slower enrollment growth and the fact that next year the exchange will operate on its own, without federal money, for the first time.
“This is a continued learning process and we feel very good about this budget,” Lee said at Thursday’s board meeting. “We are committed to on-the-ground work, consumers getting issues resolved and changing as we go.”