MERCED — California is getting ready to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, and Mercedians could see changes as the process moves forward.
This week, the Legislature's special session began with hearings and votes to implement the reforms, said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a statewide health care consumer coalition.
Bills that are passed in the special session will go into effect 90 days after the session closes, said Wright.
"That's why it was important to have the special session," he said. "We needed to act quicker. The goal is to pass a couple of bills in a quick order."
The federal health reform will be fully implemented in January. Benefits and consumer protection rules outlined in health care reform have to be enacted as state law so they can be enforced, Wright said.
This week, various health committees are holding hearings and voting on bills designed to simplify eligibility rules for Medi-Cal. They are also looking at other policies that would prevent those with pre-existing conditions from being denied care, Wright said.
In addition, lawmakers today will hold an informational session on the proposed health care budget, the implementation of the reform and the Medi-Cal expansion, he said.
It's important for the Legislature to fast-track these bills so the state will be ready for the reform and to be able to maximize the benefits for Californians, Wright said.
The pieces of broad reform that potentially will impact Merced County residents include the Medi-Cal expansion.
That expansion involves the shift of children in Healthy Families -- the state's low-cost insurance program -- to Medi-Cal, said Kathleen Grassi, director of the Merced County Department of Public Health.
Medi-Cal is the state's Medicaid program and provides health insurance coverage for low-income families. About 8,000 children in Merced County will be transferred from Healthy Families to Medi-Cal in August.
Another change would allow some Merced County residents with little or no insurance to buy coverage through a centralized marketplace offering a variety of low-cost options, Grassi said.
Additionally, the county's Medical Assistance Program for the medically indigent population will see changes, but those changes are still unclear, she said.
The program is for childless adults ages 19 to 64 who have a medical need, but lack insurance options and don't qualify for Medi-Cal, Grassi said. Each county has its own program.
Merced County's program serves 1,000 to 2,000 people in any given month, she said.
There are two options being looked at for these county-run programs, Grassi said. One is to shift those individuals into Medi-Cal.
The other option is for counties to continue to provide care through programs similar to Medi-Cal, Grassi said. "Counties are following this closely because it will impact how we provide programs," she said.
Grassi said county officials are waiting for more information as it unfolds in Sacramento. She said she's heard from people in Sacramento that there seems to be a push toward the Medi-Cal expansion option as opposed to the county look-alike programs.
She said shifting them to Medi-Cal would be a better option because people would get more medical services, including preventive care. "People would have health insurance before a condition becomes worse," she said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.