The Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog

Health Care Reform From One Person's Perspective

State Budget Cutting Holes in Health Care Safety Net

Posted by Alan on March 31, 2008


Say what you will about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed health care reform plan, it’s goal was noble. If it had worked as planed (which is highly unlikely) it would have not only brought millions of Californians into the health care coverage system, but would have strengthened the state’s medical safety net. Instead, the health care plan failed, the California budget is in tatters and that safety net is in grave danger.

Community health clinics and community health centers play a critical role in assuring that uninsured Californians obtain the health care treatment they need. As is often noted in health care reform debates, no one goes without care. The “safety net” is there to assure treatment is available to everyone. Community health care centers, for example, provide a medical home to 3.6 million uninsured Californians, according to Jason Vega of the Community Clinic Consortiumof Contra Costa and Solano counties.

What’s often overlooked, however, is how fragile that safety net really is. Part of the reason is demand. With millions of uninsured and underinsured Californians, community clinics and the like have no shortfall of clients. The quality of the care provided belies the cost of the care to those patients, who usually pay what they can — if they can at all.

The vast bulk of the funds for community clinics comes from donors and, even more importantly, from government health care programs. And that’s where the danger arises.

Under the Schwarzenegger health care plan, Medi-Cal reimbursement rates (what the state pays doctors, hospitals and clinics) was to increase. There’s certainly room for an increase: California’s reimbursement rates are among the lowest in the country.

But the health care plan failed. Part of the reason was the state’s dire fiscal condition. Even with draconian cuts recently enacted by lawmakers in Sacramento, the state needs to close a multi-billion budget gap. One way they’re likely to do that is to reduce Medi-Cal reimbursement. That, in turn, means fewer doctors will take Medi-Cal patients and, of those that do, many will see fewer of them. And that means more patients turning to community clinics.

The safety net is a critical component of today’s health care system. For those who oppose a government takeover of medical care, it is an element of the system that needs to be strengthened and protected. Yet that’s not happening now. And if the safety net disappears, the government will rush in to fill the vacumn, at great expense and to the detriment of consumer choice.

All this underscores the need for comprehensive health care reform that attacks skyrocketing medical costs while bringing more residents into the health care coverage system. I’m skeptical about whether states are in a position to accomplish this, but the federal government certainly can. As a new administration approaches this task in 2009, they need to make sure the health and vitality of the nation’s community clinics and its partners in the safety net are top of mind.

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