Last week’s release of Census data showing significant declines in health coverage ironically comes as the country recognizes the six-month anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. The rise in the number of uninsured highlights the importance of one of the law’s primary goals: to significantly expand health coverage to Americans. In California, nearly two-thirds of currently uninsured nonelderly individuals could gain coverage through the expansion of Medicaid – Medi-Cal in California – and through subsidies that make health coverage more affordable for low- to middle-income families.
While troubling, last week’s Census data on health coverage was not surprising. The data showed a significant decline in job-based coverage in 2009, likely due to high levels of unemployment. These data mirror more dramatic California-specific findings from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
Beginning in 2014, the health law will extend eligibility for Medi-Cal to persons earning less than 133 percent of the federal poverty line (approximately $14,400 for an individual in 2010). While the health law may not help many Californians who lack coverage today, Medi-Cal is a critical backstop for families currently eligible for the program who lost coverage in the economic downturn. Medi-Cal enrollment has increased sharply during the recession. From October 2005 through October 2007, Medi-Cal increased by 0.3 percent. In contrast, Medi-Cal increased by 9.2 percent from October 2007 through October 2009, the most recent data available.
The new federal health law may also have additional, modest impacts in the coming months. Beginning today, young adults, whose employment rates have dropped substantially in the recession, will be eligible to remain on their parents’ health coverage plans until age 26. Additionally, health plans will no longer be able to deny health coverage to children with pre-existing medical conditions.
The availability and accessibility of health coverage, whether public or private, gives at least a modest assurance of economic security for families weathering the recession. Last week’s Census data, while dismal, are a good reminder of why it’s important to put in place strong policies that will help Californians ride out future economic storms.
— Hanh Kim Quach