Health reform questions go unanswered

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comMarch 5, 2013 

— Some health care providers in the area say they have more questions than answers about the federal health care reform.

They also say they haven't heard many concerns expressed by patients -- yet.

"There's a lot of questions that we have," said Peter Mojarras, director of operations at Castle Family Health Centers. "How is it going to impact us? There's a lot expected."

Some estimated 20,000 people in Merced County who have no medical coverage will be able to become insured when the law is fully implemented in January 2014, Merced medical officials said. It's unknown how many of them will get coverage under the Medi-Cal expansion.

Mojarras said care providers want to know exactly how everything will work at the local level. For example, they don't know if patients will be able to keep their same providers, he said.

"We have not received enough information," he said.

Area medical officials are doing their best to be prepared for the change and help educate the community as the date gets closer.

The Golden Valley Health Centers has organized several forums and more planned to help educate the community about what the law will mean for people, said Christine Noguera, interim chief executive officer.

Golden Valley is looking at expanding the hours of operation Monday through Saturday, and possibly being open on Sundays. "We do foresee increased demand," she said.

She said another major challenge is the shortage of physicians in the area. "We can only expand as much as our provider is available to help us with those expansions," she said.

But there is a shortage, especially of primary care physicians, she said, and that problem will only increase with the additional patients who will become insured.

"It's very competitive because there's a demand across the United States for primary care," she said.

Another concern is that not many doctors in private practice take Medi-Cal patients, Mojarras said. But health centers, such as Castle and Golden Valley, have a mission to serve that population.

That will create a burden for the health centers and emergency rooms, Mojarras said. Castle has seen a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in Medi-Cal patients in the last year.

"There's more patients coming into our clinics because they have less choices, and the health reform should be about choice," he said.

Hospitals such as Memorial Hospital Los Banos don't expect things to be as smooth.

"Under federal health care reform, the government plans to provide health coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans," said Karen Garner, spokeswoman for Sutter Health, owner of the hospital.

"The costs will be covered in part by paying health care providers -- like Memorial Hospital Los Banos -- less in the coming years," Garner said. "In fact, we estimate Medicare's reimbursement reductions to the Sutter Health network to be nearly $2 billion over the next decade."

Merced resident Maria Hernandez said she hasn't been following health care reform.

"Honestly, I haven't hear much about it," she said in Spanish.

She was not the only one.

Merced resident Angelina Rico said she hasn't sought information about the law and how it could impact her. She said she will get up to speed on it once the implementation gets closer.

"I'm OK with everything right now," she said.

Merced resident Analilia Lopez said she has Medi-Cal, but only gets coverage for emergencies. She said reform will help by providing people on Medi-Cal with more health care services.

Lopez said people who don't have full coverage, such as herself, don't get routine care because they can't afford it. The law will "be good because it can help prevent illnesses," she in Spanish.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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