Child health advocates say plan to scrap Healthy Families will cost, not save

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FIle photo: Physician's assistant Erin Frazier checks a young boy at a community health center for low-income patients. Child health advocates say the move to nix Healthy Families would affect almost a million children.

As state lawmakers prepare to vote on dozens of budget-related bills on Wednesday, advocates are pushing to scrap a plan that would eliminate the health care program Healthy Families. They say the move jeopardizes the health of nearly a million California children.

Democrats plan to shift those children from Healthy Families low-cost coverage to Medi-Cal, the state’s even lower-cost healthcare program. Gov. Jerry Brown says the resulting efficiencies would save the state $13-million in the next fiscal year – growing to $72 million within a couple more years. State finance department spokesman HD Palmer says the switch to a single agency could save money for some families, too.

“It is being proposed as a way to achieve savings within the health and human services area in a way that we think is going to provide benefits to children and families as well as health providers.” said Palmer.

Palmer says some low-income parents in Healthy Families who pay premiums now wouldn’t have pay them under Medi-Cal. Providers would gain free vaccines for their patients. The Brown administration would transfer children in phases over years.

But Kelly Hardy with the nonprofit advocacy group Children Now worries because she says Medi-Cal is already maxed out.

“Right now it’s difficult for all the children in Medi-Cal program to find doctors and dentists.” Hardy said between lobbying lawmakers at the capitol Monday. “So our concern is adding another almost a million kids to the Medi-Cal rolls is only going to exacerbate that access problem."

“And if it’s not necessary why do it?” asks Dr. Pedram Salimpour, a board member of the Los Angeles County Medical Association. He thinks a pilot program that would transfer a smaller number of children makes more sense. Salimpour, who shares a pediatric practice with his father, says it can be tough for families to switch doctors.

“We see the grand kids of the kids that my dad started taking care of” explained Salimpour. “That continuity of care only exists in pediatrics and it’s valuable because when a kid comes in, he trusts you. When a parent comes in, she trusts you. And we can get people to do the right things for themselves because they trust us.”

A quarter of the children in the Healthy Families program live in Los Angeles County. Salimpour thinks that they’ll have less trouble finding Medi-Cal providers than children in more rural, smaller counties like Riverside and San Bernardino.

Child health advocates say the elimination of Healthy Families makes even less sense because the state may lose nearly $200 million in taxes on health insurance plans that pays for the program. The insurers supported the tax because the state money attracts federal matching funds. That money comes back to the plans through Healthy Families patients. The tax is up for renewal this year and Democrats need a two-thirds majority vote to pass it. Republicans, many who represent districts where low-income residents have trouble finding Medi-Cal providers, oppose the elimination of Healthy Families, and may not support the tax.

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