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Obamacare: Slow start to first day of signups at County-USC hospital

October 01, 2013|By Eryn Brown
  • Annette Diaz holds her daughter, Kayla Valenzuela, 2, while her son Johnie Valenzuela, 5 months, sleeps, in the Health Benefits Resource Center at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, one of many locations providing information about the start of Obamacare.
Annette Diaz holds her daughter, Kayla Valenzuela, 2, while her son Johnie… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

It was a quiet morning at L.A. County-USC Medical Center on Tuesday, as signups for insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act -- also known as Obamacare -- got underway.

Hospital staff were mobilizing to sign up patients for expanded Medi-Cal coverage, but at 9:20 a.m., none had yet arrived at the entrance to the ER, where two men chatted at a bench outside and a few patients sat quietly awaiting care inside.

Whether uninsured patients of the county's largest public hospital sign up for coverage under the provisions of the healthcare law -- or not -- could have a major impact on L.A. County's health services system, which currently pays for medical care for uninsured patients who cycle through its three public hospitals and network of public clinics.

If people without coverage, who make up 70% of the hospital's patients, purchase newly affordable insurance or qualify for expanded Medi-Cal benefits, the county expects to spend less on their care.

"More payers coming in is a good thing," said Michael Wilson, a spokesman for the county's Department of Health Services.

Proponents of the law are counting on the long enrollment period, which will last six months, even though coverage is due to begin Jan. 1. That means consumers have until March 31 to select a health plan.

Most experts believe that the real test of how well enrollment is working will come in December, just before insurance coverage is supposed to kick in, and again in March, as the enrollment period closes.

Peter Lee, who runs California's insurance marketplace, Covered California, joked recently that two people in the state would sign up for insurance Tuesday.

"Oct. 1 is just a start … not a magic date," said Heather Howard, director of the State Health Reform Assistance Network at Princeton University, which is working with states on implementing the healthcare law.


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