Expanding Medi-Cal: We’re Not Starting From Scratch

California isn’t starting from square one as the state moves toward expanding Medi-Cal coverage to most low-income adults under age 65, pending approval in 2013 by state lawmakers and Governor Brown. Under a 2010 agreement with the federal government, California established a temporary, county-based Low Income Health Program (LIHP) that is building a bridge to an expanded Medi-Cal Program in 2014. LIHP provides health coverage to uninsured adults ages 19 to 64 who meet citizenship or immigration requirements and are excluded from Medi-Cal under current eligibility rules. The income of participating adults cannot exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty line (a limit equal to $22,340 for an individual in 2012), although counties generally may — and in many cases have — set lower eligibility thresholds. County participation in LIHP is voluntary; counties that opt into the program have half of their LIHP costs paid by the federal government. As of September 2012, more than 500,000 low-income Californians across 50 counties were enrolled in LIHP.

LIHP provides vital health care services to low-income adults who otherwise would be uninsured. It’s also bringing substantial federal dollars — projected to reach nearly $3 billion — into California’s health care sector and the broader state economy. But even more, LIHP is helping to prepare California for the expansion of Medi-Cal as envisioned in the federal health care reform law. This is because nearly all of the adults enrolled in LIHP — along with many other low-income Californians — would be newly eligible for Medi-Cal under the expansion. In fact, state officials are already planning for the transition of eligible LIHP enrollees to Medi-Cal effective January 1, 2014. At that point, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of coverage for this new group of Medi-Cal beneficiaries through 2016, with the state picking up a small share of the cost in subsequent years. So, for anyone wondering when the Medi-Cal expansion will begin in California, LIHP provides an answer: It’s already under way. It’s now up to state policymakers to maintain the current momentum and propel the expansion — a key component of federal health care reform — across the finish line.

— Scott Graves