As Gov. Jerry Brown prepares to shift nearly 200,000 children from a popular state health care program to lower-cost Medi-Cal in January, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg called for a halt in the process this week.
Steinberg essentially asked the governor to backtrack on one of his June budget demands to eliminate Healthy Families. The program serves more than 860,000 lower-middle-class children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal but struggle to afford health insurance.
Healthy Families has been a popular program with bipartisan support, but Brown has argued that California needs to move those children to Medi-Cal in preparation for the 2014 federal health care overhaul. The state is planning to move them in different waves in 2013, with the first involving nearly 200,000 children in eight large counties starting in January.
Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said Healthy Families enrollees remain at risk of losing their physicians and other medical providers under the switch. He also noted that the federal government had not yet approved the transfer.
The state is planning to begin sending notices next week to families who will be moved to Medi-Cal in January.
Diana S. Dooley, the Health and Human Services Agency secretary, said Friday that she appreciated Steinberg's concerns but that the state remains on track to ensure Healthy Families enrollees have a smooth transition.
"If we approach the deadline and haven't met those conditions, it will be delayed, but it is premature to say that at this point," Dooley said. "We are working as fast as we can."
Legislative Democrats reluctantly agreed to phase out Healthy Families in 2013 to satisfy Brown in budget talks in exchange for softer cuts to other programs that serve low-income Californians. Republicans objected to eliminating Healthy Families and blocked a $180 million tax on managed care because of it.
Steinberg wrote in a letter this week that 11,160 Health Net enrollees in his Sacramento-based district lack assurances they will be able to see their same providers in Medi-Cal. Sacramento County is in a second wave that begins March 1.
"This is of significant concern to me and it clearly illustrates the need to slow the transition," Steinberg said.
Healthy Families advocates say the state won't save much money from shifting children but will endanger their coverage because Medi-Cal lacks enough doctors and other providers to serve 860,000 new patients. Advocates believe Healthy Families has better providers in no small part because it has higher reimbursements than Medi-Cal, whose rates the state has cut dramatically to balance past budgets.