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Sonoma County gets early start to federal health law
More than 6,000 residents added to rolls of federally insured

More than 6,000 residents in Sonoma County and 400,000 in the state are getting an early taste of Obamacare, receiving a version of health care coverage promised to 30 million Americans nationwide.

The coverage is part of California's early expansion of the federal Medicaid program, a key component of the health care law promoted by President Barack Obama. Only six other states in the country and Washington, D.C., have such programs.

Meanwhile, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin and Mississippi are among the states vowing not to participate in the 2014 expansion of Medicaid and the creation of state health benefit exchanges. Their refusal could leave millions without health care coverage.

"California took the lead on implementing the spirit of the Patient Rights and Affordable Care Act," said Marion Deeds, interim assistant director of the Sonoma County Human Services Department. "It's really the first generation of expanded Medicaid."

For decades, Medicaid has paid hospital and health care bills for the nation's poorest residents. But many working people without company-paid health insurance often didn't make enough money to pay for private insurance, leaving them uninsured during medical emergencies or when their health failed.

The intent of the health care bill is to bring that huge segment of the population into government-funded health care coverage by 2014, largely through local clinics such as the Santa Rosa Community Health Centers or the Petaluma Health Center.

What that will look like nationally already is happening in Sonoma County under a program called Path2Health, a precursor to Obama's health care expansion.

After years of living with no health insurance, Billie Jo Bianchi, 63, of Petaluma now finds herself with a Path2Health insurance card.

While she appreciates the coverage, she said that filling out all the paperwork to get it has been a byzantine process.

Bianchi, who has fourth-stage liver disease and other health issues, said the last time she had health insurance was when she worked for Viacom two decades ago. If she had continued her health insurance, she might have been able to treat her illnesses earlier.

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