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Questions, Concerns Greet Exchange Leaders at S.F. Town Hall Meeting

With an Oct. 1 deadline looming, Covered California officials have launched a public outreach and awareness campaign to help spread the word and answer questions about coverage through the state’s new health insurance exchange.

Dozens of outreach events are planned throughout the state leading up to the exchange’s first day of business about six weeks from now. One of the first town hall meetings Friday at the UC-San Francisco Mission Bay campus attracted hundreds of people who packed a large room and filled out cards with questions about how the Affordable Care Act will be implemented in California.

“You are a part of making history because the questions you ask are questions that hundreds of other Californians have,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California. 

Lee said the meeting, and others like it to come, are intended to spread the word and clear up any confusion about how the ACA affects people.

“Our mission is to increase the number of insured Californians,” Lee said. “And our vision is to lower health care costs while increasing quality, to address health disparities and help consumers be able to make the right coverage choice for them.”

Questions from the audience ranged from specifics, such as how much premiums will change for different income levels and when open enrollment begins (October through end of March 2014), to broader questions, such as why health care costs are supposed to fall under the insurance exchanges.

Mitzy Russom, whose Irvine-based company, Pinnacle, provides third-party services for employers with self-funded benefit plans, asked how the exchanges will impact the overall costs of providing health care.

“One of the things we’re doing is having our health plans show how they’re changing delivery,” Lee said.  “And we at Covered California are working with Medicare and Medicaid so the entire delivery system improves over time.”

Lee said the exchange is requiring the 12 health plans contracting with the state to provide information about how patients with chronic diseases like cancer or asthma are getting the right care at the right time, without duplicated procedures or unnecessary tests.  

Kate Grezca, who asked a question on behalf of San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect, asked what will happen to Healthy San Francisco, the city’s universal care model.

Barbara Garcia, the director of health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said the city is working on transitioning roughly 40,000 city residents from Healthy San Francisco to Medi-Cal or Covered California, and the remaining 20,000 will remain in the San Francisco program.

“Part of our message is that Medi-Cal and Covered California are better than Healthy San Francisco because that is full insurance, and it has more health benefits,” Garcia said.

Susan Fang asked what exchange officials are doing to reach the Chinese community.

Lee said the exchange will conduct public outreach in several languages and exchange enrollers will be available in every California community to serve all populations.

As for specific rating information, nothing will be available until Oct. 1.

“We’ve announced what plans are available, and which counties they’re serving. That’s available today, along with broadly what the rates are and how they compare to the market today,” Lee said. “The actual specific rates and when you can buy will be available Oct. 1 for coverage starting Jan. 1.”

Event attendees included a few political luminaries, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who lives in San Francisco.

“Covered California is leading the way in establishing a bright and healthy future for the Golden State by making sure insured, as well as uninsured Californians find plans that suit their needs and their pocketbooks,” Pelosi said.

“While we passed a federal law, the implementation and some of the pioneer work that led up to it was done locally,” she said. “California has been a leader at every level of the Affordable Care Act.”

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) attended along with San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting, among others.

“Health care is a basic human right, not just a privilege for the rich,” Leno said. “That is the premise of the Affordable Care Act, and it’s time now for implementation. Many of the people who will carry out that implementation are here today.”

Lee said launching the exchange and conducting the massive public outreach campaign was not as smooth as he expected it would be, but exchange officials will work on rollout through 2014.

“I said we’re going to build this website, and it’s going to be as easy as buying a book on Amazon. I’ve backed off from that a little bit,” Lee said.This is complicated stuff, and California is a very big and very diverse state.”

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