Big Medi-Cal Expansion Not a Success Story

Susan Shelley

Columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”


The Affordable Care Act is collapsing, and President Obama blames Republicans.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the president accused Republicans of undermining the health care law’s implementation. “It has come at a cost for the country,” Obama wrote, “most notably for the estimated 4 million Americans left uninsured because they live in GOP-led states that have yet to expand Medicaid.”

But expanding Medicaid also has come at a cost.

Medi-Cal, as Medicaid is called in California, has enrolled almost 5 million people since January 2014, when the Affordable Care Act expanded eligibility for the safety-net program. In 2010, 7.4 million Californians were covered by Medi-Cal. Today it’s more than 13 million, about one-third of the state population.

Covered California, the health care exchange where federally subsidized policies can be purchased from private insurers, has enrolled just 1.4 million people since it went online in the fall of 2013.

Is the dramatic expansion of Medi-Cal a success story?

Not if you run a hospital. California pays Medi-Cal providers less than it costs to provide the care to patients. The more people they treat, the more money they lose.

In 2009, hospitals in California were losing a total of about $2 billion annually on the care they provided to Medi-Cal patients. Today it’s about $8 billion.

The federal government provides matching funds for state Medicaid programs. To help California bring home every available federal dollar, the hospitals came up with the idea of paying a fee to the state, which would be put into the Medi-Cal program to help it qualify for matching funds. Then the state would have more money and could pay the hospitals for providing care to Medi-Cal patients.

It may sound like a game of three-card monte, but the California Hospital Association says the program has helped hospitals lose only $5 billion on Medi-Cal patients instead of $8 billion.

The hospital fee program was written into state law in 2009 and renewed three more times, most recently in 2013. It was well-supported but still bumpy: The state took a $1 billion annual cut of the hospital fees to pay for children’s health programs, and occasionally some of the hospital fees were diverted to other budget priorities.

So the hospitals are asking the voters of California to lock the hospital fee program into the law permanently. It will be on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot as Proposition 52, the Medi-Cal Funding and Accountability Act.

The measure has the endorsement of business organizations and labor unions. They’re all supporting it because when the government underpays medical providers, medical providers charge everybody else a higher price to make up for it. The federal matching dollars make the numbers a little less terrible.

Even so, insurance premiums for 2017 are going up by double digits in California.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News. To read the entire column go here.

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