As the calendar speeds toward the March 31 deadline for securing benefits through the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, African-American enrollment in California’s healthcare exchange is falling far short of expectations.
Data recently released by Covered California suggests that only about 50 percent of eligible African-Americans have signed up. Uninsured consumers now have less than a month to enroll before they are subject to penalties – $95 per adult or 1 percent of your annual income, whichever is greater – and faced with an even more daunting challenge: a longer period of time among the ranks of those without healthcare coverage.
It is perhaps all the more worrying considering that the Medi-Cal program, which has been covering Californians who couldn’t afford health insurance since 1966, has been greatly expanded under Obamacare, making up to two million more people are eligible. This is a huge missed opportunity for the black community.
As of January 1, single adults ages 19-64, are eligible for Medi-Cal based on a simplified eligibility formula: your annual income must be 138 percent or less of the federal poverty level. In 2013, that meant eligibility for individuals earning up to $15,856.
According to information provided by Covered California and the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS), the Affordable Care Act ensures that all Medi-Cal plans offer a comprehensive package of essential health benefits. These include ambulatory patient and emergency services, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse, prescription drugs and laboratory services.
As of 2014, the array of mental health and substance abuse services have expanded to include individual and group mental health evaluation and treatment, outpatient drug monitoring therapy, psychiatric consultation and intensive residential and outpatient treatment services.
Dental care, vision and speech therapy services are generally only available to children and youth under 21, but dental services will be available to all adults starting this May.
There are three ways to enroll for Covered California and Medi-Cal health insurance plans: online at www.CoveredCA.com , over the phone calling 800- 300-1506 and in-person with assistance from a Certified Enrollment Counselor.
To provide a real-world example of how easy it can be to enroll into Medi-Cal, this reporter — who, like many in the media business, recently lost health benefits after being forced to transition from staff to freelance work — underwent the eligibility and enrollment process with help from St. John’s Well Child & Family Center in historically black South Los Angeles.
The process requires a birth or citizenship certificate, Social Security card (if you have one), proof of income and proof of county residency. If everything checks out, eligibility is immediately confirmed. Finalizing the paperwork may take up to 45 days, and enrollees can change to a Covered California plan if income and employment status changes within that time. To start the Medi-Cal enrollment process, those who believe they may be eligible can go to the DHCS website to start the application process.
Meanwhile, those working to get more African-Americans enrolled are holding out hope that black consumers will heed the calls for action targeted at their communities and enroll in a plan.
“The enrollment numbers for African-Americans are not sufficient. It’s basically half of what it should be,” said Daniel Zingale, Senior Vice President of The California Endowment. “I think the outreach is getting better, but I think the real problem is the intake process. It’s hard to get through on the phone lines, the website and hardest of all to get an in-person enroller.
It’s a tough job because Covered California had to create all new systems, hire staff to the answer the phones and license the enrollers. It’s a big undertaking, but I think they’re making progress.”