Health care leaders in Merced weighed in Thursday on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, saying the stunning decision is a positive one, not only for the United States in general, but in particular for the San Joaquin Valley.
Mike O. Sullivan, chief executive officer of Golden Valley Health Centers, said he didn't know what to expect but was surprised that the conservative Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., voted the way it did.
"I think it's tremendous," he said. "Affordable Care Act really is targeted at our underserved population."
The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the center of Obama's health care mandate as constitutional. The decision, which came in on a 5-4 vote, is good news for California because it was the first state to implement key components of the law.
The highly debated individual mandate for all Americans to have health care insurance beginning in 2014 was upheld to be constitutional as a tax. Those who don't have coverage when the law is fully implemented would have to pay a penalty.
Also as part of the ruling, states will not be required to participate in the Medicaid expansion program.
Overall, the law is a good thing "for those of us who want to improve our broken and troubled health care system," Sullivan said.
Cardoza praises ruling
Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, on Thursday said he was happy with the outcome.
"I am heartened that the Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, a law I worked hard for on behalf of my constituents in the Central Valley, many of whom lack access to affordable, reliable health care," he said in a statement.
David Dunham, president of Mercy Medical Center, said there are many uninsured people in the area. With the law moving forward, many of them will get coverage, which will allow them to establish a medical home and seek preventive care. Doing so would help reduce people's reliance on the emergency department as a source for primary care.
Mercy's emergency room sees an average of about 177 patients a day, said Bob McLaughlin, hospital spokesman. Many of them could be seen at urgent care or primary care offices, he said.
Such issues could be addressed if the law is implemented as it was written. "I believe that the Affordable Care Act, once it is fully implemented, will have a significant effect in our health care system," Dunham said.
Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a statewide consumer health advocacy group, said Thursday's decision was a victory for Californians, specifically those who live in the Central Valley.
Nearly a quarter of people who live in the region are uninsured at any given time, he said, so the law represents a huge benefit for that population.
"There's not a place in the state, if not the nation, that has worse health care issues than the Central Valley," Wright said.
Kathleen Grassi, director of the Merced County Department of Public Health, said it was difficult for her to predict what kind of impact the law will have on health care delivery in Merced County.
But in general, she said, more people will have access to health care.
"What I think is important is that it allows the federal government to go forward with increasing access for health care for our citizens," she said. "In particular, the emphasis in prevention so that we can begin to really tackle the high costs of chronic diseases."
Only the beginning
Paul Brown, a health economist at UC Merced, said high health care costs and lack of access are two of the major problems facing the nation. The Affordable Care Act deals with cost, Brown said, but it focuses more on providing people access to care.
Many Californians already have seen those benefits.
For example, said Wright of Health Access, the state now has more than 400,000 people enrolled in county-based low-income programs -- which Merced County is still not sure whether it will implement. And more than 350,000 young adults are covered under their parents' insurance.
Still, Wright said a lot more work remains to be done to make sure the law is implemented as it is intended.
"In general, this is not the end of health care reform," Brown said. "This is the beginning of health care reform."
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.