Sonoma County ramps up for launch of new health insurance exchange

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In a bland industrial office building off Airport Boulevard, dozens of newly hired county employees have been logging what must seem like endless hours of training in preparation for the launch of President Barack Obama's health care law.

At one end of the room, overlooking rows and rows of computer stations, an instructor walks trainees through each line of an application for health care coverage and subsidies. Computer screen after computer screen, the instructor navigates the bureaucratic minutiae that will determine what kind of health insurance thousands of North Coast residents will be eligible for on Oct. 1, when the state's health insurance marketplace opens for business.

These 42 benefits eligibility workers are part of a massive, national campaign that involves a diverse cast of characters, from county employees to doctors, nurses, private insurance brokers and Internet entrepreneurs — even as some members of Congress wage a last-ditch effort to kill Obamacare.

"It took Medicare a number of years to roll out," said Rita Scardaci, director of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. "Our goal is that everyone will not only get coverage, but will get access to care."

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, millions of uninsured Americans will be eligible for medical insurance through several major changes in the health care landscape.

The law will require most individuals to have health insurance coverage or face a penalty beginning Jan. 1, though some will be exempted from the requirement, including those who choose not to comply for religious reasons.

There are approximately 70,000 Sonoma County residents who do not have health insurance. Of these, 50,000 individuals will be eligible for insurance under the health care law's expanded coverage provisions.

In a move that affects millions of Americans, the federal government is also lowering eligibility requirements for its Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal in California. That alone is expected to add another 18,000 Medi-Cal members to the county's existing 60,000, said Jerry Dunn, director of the county Department of Human Services.

On Oct. 1, the state also will launch its health insurance marketplace, called Covered California, which will offer qualified health plans to people of various income levels. Tax credits will be available to those with incomes between 139 to 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines. County officials estimate that 21,000 uninsured local residents will be eligible for tax subsidies available through Covered California.

Government agencies, health clinics and insurance companies across the North Coast are hiring new workers and training existing employees to help businesses and individuals understand their health insurance options and prepare for the new wave of patients.

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