Committee Finally Moves Health Reform Bills

The Assembly Committee on Health yesterday approved passage of two bills that made up the bulk of policy decisions in the legislative special session on health care.

Yesterday’s committee approval came the day after the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown hammered out a budget agreement. Some details of that pact have not been officially announced, including a provision for coverage of autism services. Autism coverage is implicitly contained — but could still be dropped — from one of the bills passed by the committee yesterday.

SBX1-1 by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) would implement optional Medi-Cal expansion, paving the way for 1.4 million Californians earning up to 138% of federal poverty level to become eligible for the state’s Medicaid program.

In the June 4 version of that bill, a type of autism therapy called applied behavioral analysis was implicitly covered as an essential health benefit, but autism advocates worry that coverage might be dropped as a result of the new budget deal.

In a letter to state legislators yesterday, children’s advocates said:

“Given that hundreds of children transitioning from Healthy Families to Medi-Cal have been unable to continue receiving ABA services, despite the Administration’s promises to the contrary, as well as the state’s acknowledgement that irreparable harm is caused by the cessation of and inability to access ABA services, it is unconscionable to pass a budget that would continue to deprive children of this medically necessary care.”

The letter came from eight organizations including Alliance of California Autism Organizations, The Children’s Partnership and Children’s Defense Fund-California.

Hernandez did not address those specifics of the bill and focused on the historic nature of the optional Medi-Cal expansion.

“These benefits are 100% federally funded for the first three years,” Hernandez said, “and eventually decline to 90% federal funding by 2020.”

Hernandez said the legislation would “modernize and simplify the current paperwork-based enrollment process to make it easier for individuals to have access to health coverage.”

The committee also passed another special session bill, SBX1-3, also authored by Hernandez. Known as “the bridge program,” the bill is designed to allow people to stay in their health plan when financial or family circumstances change. That limits the amount of churning between plans, Hernandez said.

Jim Gross, a legislative advocate for Local Health Plans of California, said the bridge is important for continuity. “We enroll 70% of the Medi-Cal population,” Gross said. “It’s important to allow them to stay in the plan they were in.”

Elizabeth Landsberg, director of legislative advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, took an unusual tack to talk about the significance of passing the two health care reform bills.

“This morning I renewed my driver’s license at the DMV, which I was somewhat dreading,” Landsberg said. “But … it turned out I had nothing to fear. I was at the DMV for a total of seven minutes. I had professional, courteous help, had my picture taken and I was done.”

That kind of easy efficiency is possible at the public agency level, Landsberg said.

“Government,” she said, “can and often does do things well.”

Both of those special session bills now go to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.

Today, the Senate Committee on Health is scheduled to take up ABX1-1 by Assembly member John Perez (D-Los Angeles). It is the companion bill to SBX1-1.

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