Medi-Cal seen as relief for some, confusing burden for others

Business owner Lori Golden wasn't looking for charity.

But the 62-year-old Northridge resident said that's what it felt like when she tried to buy an Obamacare health insurance policy through the Covered California exchange — and instead learned that her income was so low it qualified her to receive benefits through California's healthcare program for the poor.

"I'm upset. I sort of feel like I'm being forced to go into Medi-Cal," Golden said.

Supporters of national healthcare reform tout the expansion of Medicaid — called Medi-Cal in California — as one of the great successes of the Affordable Care Act.

For many needy people, learning they're eligible for the usually free program has been a tremendous relief — assurance that, after decades of forgoing care or worrying about medical expenses, they'll now be able to afford medications, see a doctor or seek emergency care without worrying about ending up broke.

But the news isn't wholly welcome for others, who find the complexities of signing up with Medi-Cal bewildering and onerous. And some, like Golden, who don't consider themselves low-income and don't know how Medi-Cal works, also fret over being placed on state healthcare rolls — "on the dole" — and would rather just pay for insurance.

"To me, Medi-Cal sounds like something that's free — and I'm not looking to get a government handout," she said. "That embarrasses me."

Golden, who publishes the free newspaper the Pet Press, used to pay $341 a month for a high-deductible policy through Aetna, which discontinued her coverage when it stopped selling to individuals in California in 2013.

She was sure she could afford a subsidized Covered California plan, which cost less than half as much per month. But such low-priced policies aren't available for Medi-Cal-eligible Californians, who are welcome to buy insurance through the exchange only if they give up any subsidy.

Without government help, the comprehensive plan Golden was eyeing would have cost around $600 a month. A higher-deductible plan with larger co-pays would still have cost more than $400 a month.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, somewhere between 1 million and 2 million Californians were expected to become newly eligible for Medi-Cal by 2015. The health program already serves more than 9 million people.

On Jan. 21, Covered California reported that 584,000 had been "determined likely eligible" for Medi-Cal after visiting CoveredCa.com and an additional  630,000 transitioned into Medi-Cal from separate low-income health programs run by counties. Patients signing on for Medi-Cal join a health plan and receive their care from networks of participating doctors, clinics, hospitals and pharmacies, much like other managed care patients who have private insurance.

The low-income insurance program, once mainly for women with children and people with disabilities, is now open to any adult earning less than 138% of the federal poverty level (in California, $32,499 a year for a family of four and $15,856 for a household of one.)

Also newly eligible are children in households earning up to 266% of the poverty line. That means a family of four making a little more $60,000 a year can be split in two, with parents able to buy subsidized coverage but children receiving theirs through Medi-Cal.

Martin Gross, a self-employed lawyer and Obamacare proponent in Mar Vista, bought Kaiser Permanente policies for himself and his wife through Covered California.

But when his 16-year-old son qualified for Medi-Cal, it gave him pause.

"I said, 'Wait a minute — I'm not that poor. Why is my son on Medi-Cal?' " he recalled. "I wasn't crazy about it. It was a hit to my ego."

Gross said he would have liked to have had the option of paying what he used to for his son's coverage.

"I just didn't want to pay double," he said, referring to what would have been the unsubsidized Covered California cost.

Edward Chavez, co-chairman of the health enrollment team at One L.A., a community group that works through religious congregations, said that he and other advocates had encountered similar resistance to Medi-Cal among the mainly Latino and working-class clients he has in the northeast San Fernando Valley.