About 3 Million New Medi-Cal Enrollees?

The number of Californians who will be eligible to participate in the federal health care coverage expansion in 2014 is higher than previously thought, according to a new study from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, based on data from the 2009 California Health Interview Survey.

About 4.7 million people will be eligible for the new coverage options, and about 3 million of those people qualify for Medi-Cal, according to Shana Alex Lavarreda, lead author of the UCLA policy brief.

“We were surprised by the number of people eligible for Medi-Cal, about 3 million, under the federal expansion,” Lavarreda said.

“What we’re seeing now with this huge jump is that the uninsured population in California has changed,” she said. “There are more low-income people, and there are more uninsured than there were before.”

Partly, that shift can be attributed to the state’s changing unemployment rate. “It was at 5-and-a-half percent in 2004,” she said, “and it jumped to 12.3% in 2009.”

The high numbers outlined in the UCLA policy brief may cause those working on the state budget to gag — especially in light of the $6 billion in health-related cuts being contemplated right now. But this is actually good news for California, Lavarreda said.

“This means that Medi-Cal is about to get much more important than it already is,” she said, “with about a 50% increase in enrollment. With the [federal Medicaid] waiver, the counties already are starting to enroll people in advance of 2014, but still, there will be this big wave of people enrolling.”

And that enrollment is critical to helping California’s economy, she said. With so many uninsured in the state, emergency departments and hospitals would be overrun without this chance to get millions of people health insurance coverage, Lavarreda said.

“When people are uninsured, they delay care until something catastrophic happens,” Lavarreda said, adding that catastrophic care is more expensive than managed care.

“Economically, when you create universal coverage, costs do go down — for the counties, in particular. If you’re covered, you don’t wait to have the most expensive care, so this really will help stabilize the state budget, instead of having to put out fires in the budget all the time.”

Kiwon Yoo, a financial analyst for the Insure the Uninsured Project, agreed.

“The federal government will take on the full financial burden of newly-eligible Medi-Cal subscribers in 2014, so the costs of enrolling millions more into Medi-Cal shouldn’t be as daunting from a state budget standpoint,” Yoo said.

“In the long run … the benefits of health reform and coverage expansion would actually decrease health care costs and the budget deficit,” she said.

“Ideally, improved health insurance coverage and access to affordable, quality care will prevent patients from becoming very sick and, thus, very costly to the state.”

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