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Consumer Advocates Fret About Proposed Covered California Budget Cuts

Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee said exchange officials had to make tough calls in drafting the budget for 2017. (Photo by Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The board of Covered California fielded complaints from consumer advocates at its monthly meeting Thursday after unveiling a proposed 2017 budget that would cut funding for some programs meant to assist low-income and hard-to-reach communities.

The $308 million budget, which the fivemember board of the state insurance exchange will vote on next month, would amount to an 8.1 percent spending cut from this year’s $335 million.

The proposed budget would save $10 million by eliminating a Covered California call center in Contra Costa County, one of three in the state. The call centers are staffed by operators who answer questions from consumers and help them sign up for health coverage. As enrollment has slowed, the need for these centers has diminished, said Peter V. Lee, Covered California’s executive director.

“This is not a reflection of anything negative about the great work that our service center in Contra Costa has done,” he said. “But belt-tightening [means] relooking at what we do.”

Lee said exchange officials had to make some tough calls in drafting the budget for 2017. Next year will be the first in which the exchange must operate without federal funding.

Lee also announced that Covered California wants to terminate its contract with Health Consumer Alliance, a collaborative of legal services that offers assistance to consumers in grievances and appeals.

It would be replaced by a $2 million in-house ombudsman program.

“Do we need an outside resource as well? We’re thinking probably not,” Lee said.

Elizabeth Landsberg, director of policy and advocacy at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a member of the Health Consumer Alliance, told board members she was disappointed to learn of the recommendation to discontinue the partnership.

“We have the tools to resolve these problems and we feel [the Health Consumer Alliance] would be a better source than to set up another infrastructure,” Landsberg said.

She noted that the proposed ombudsman would cost Covered California twice as much as the alliance. And she expressed concern about the independence of such an ombudsman.

The proposed 2017 budget also slashes funding for Covered California’s Navigator program, which works with community organizations across the state to help underserved groups sign up for health coverage. Spending on that program would be cut in half next year, from $10 million to $5 million.

The community partners of the Navigator program organize local outreach events and provide language assistance as well as information about enrollment and renewal. They target people who often have less access to care, including Latinos, African Americans and the LGBTQ community.

Consumer advocates complained that slashing Navigator funding in half would depress enrollment and renewals.

Kate Burch, network director of the LGBT Health and Human Service Network, said the budget cut would affect the LGBTQ community, which has unique needs during enrollment and benefits greatly from the program.

“Navigators have been essential,” Burch said. Cutting funding “would result in more people going without insurance for longer.”

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