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Viewpoints: More work to cement health reform gains

Stand up and pat yourself on the back, California. With key leadership from Gov. Jerry Brown, the Legislature and our communities, we have led the nation in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Enrolling 2 million Californians into Medi-Cal would not have happened without the dedication of our partners who helped open coverage to the previously uninsured, build pathways to prevention and lay the foundation for healthy communities around the state.

But there’s still work to be done.

Millions of people are at risk of losing their coverage due to the new, cumbersome Medi-Cal renewal process. Many of these individuals are also in danger of losing their ability to continue life-saving treatments. In Placer County, for example, the renewal rate is estimated to be below 50 percent when typically 80 percent or more of Medi-Cal participants return. Some advocates say they’ve heard other counties report similar drops in renewal rates.

Senate Bill 18 will help California get the word out on renewals, keep our neighbors healthy and remain at the pinnacle of national health care leadership. This legislation will provide $12 million to help California’s vulnerable families navigate renewing their Medi-Cal coverage. The initial $6 million commitment from the California Endowment comes with a match from the federal government to build upon an existing program for community organizations to assist Californians with the recently updated, clunky renewal forms. State policymakers agree we just need one thing to keep California’s poorest insured: the governor’s signature.

Community organizations statewide are ready to step up and match their efforts from the last year to ensure that families who need to maintain coverage are finding help. The infrastructure already exists and is ready to be deployed at no additional cost to the state; these funds would serve as a key investment at a crucial time in the state’s efforts to secure health care for underserved families. By accepting these funds, county agencies can continue to reduce the backlog of 350,000 applications while community-based organizations assist Medi-Cal recipients.

Looking back, Gov. Brown and the Legislature took monumental steps forward by expanding Medi-Cal, making it possible for 2 million of California’s most vulnerable to get coverage. Lower-income families have historically relied on local community health clinics and emergency rooms, seeking care only when the problem is too life-threatening to ignore. For many Medi-Cal enrollees, this is the first time they have been eligible, or they haven’t been covered in decades.

This legislation builds on the work started in 2013 when Brown accepted a grant to drive enrollment in Medi-Cal – $26.5 million from the California Endowment and $26.5 million in matching federal funds. Turning to this year, Covered California enrollees recently received the news that their health coverage will be renewed automatically, but 8 million Medi-Cal recipients must get through complicated forms while waiting behind the hundreds of thousands of existing applications backlogged in the system. In some cases, waiting isn’t an option. Life-sustaining treatments shouldn’t be postponed due to an unnecessarily complex paperwork process.

California must maximize its initial investment. The reality today is that one in three Californians is eligible for or enrolled in Medi-Cal. Renewing coverage for Medi-Cal recipients should be our highest priority.

Creating a healthy California does not happen overnight – nor does it happen in a year. We’ve made the first investment in keeping California healthy and strong. Now we must make a concerted effort to not lose hard-fought gains. Through SB 18, California can continue lifting up millions of underserved residents and confirm its legacy as the nation’s leader in providing affordable, quality healthcare.