Despite Obamacare ruling, local health care advocates encourage enrollment in Covered California

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Despite a federal judge in Texas invalidating the Affordable Care Act, county officials and local health care professionals are reminding tens of thousands of Sonoma County residents the ruling last Friday has no immediate impact on the health care program.

Officials said people can still sign up for coverage through Covered California, the state’s health exchange program under the Affordable Care Act, during the current open enrollment period.

Consumers have until midnight Dec. 21 to sign up for health coverage that begins Jan. 1. The federal deadline was last Friday.

Covered California extended its deadline to sign up for insurance on Saturday after news coverage of the Texas judge’s decision left some people confused about the status of the law.

“We are assuring our consumers that their coverage is intact for 2019 and the ruling by the Texas district court has not changed insurance coverage through Covered California at this point,” said Teresa Tillman, interim CEO at Redwood Community Health Coalition, a consortium of health centers in Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Yolo counties.

The coalition coordinates Covered California enrollment specialists based at several health centers in several counties. Tillman said the ruling has likely led to some confusion among local residents who purchase their insurance through the Covered California health exchange.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of Texas ruled that former President Barack Obama’s signature health law was unconstitutional because its taxing power had been stripped away by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The tax bill eliminated Obamacare’s individual mandate by amending Internal Revenue Service codes such that the mandate’s excise tax is reduced to $0 beginning in 2019.

The day after the ruling, the American Medical Association called the ruling faulty, arguing that the amended tax code maintained Obamacare’s taxing power but simply reduced the tax to $0.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra led a coalition of 17 attorneys general Monday in filing an expedited motion to challenge the ruling.

“The District Court’s ruling poses a dangerous threat to the health care of millions of Americans. We’re asking the court to make clear that the ACA is still the law and ensure that all Americans can continue to access affordable healthcare under it,” Becerra said in a statement.

O’Connor’s ruling will likely wind its way through the courts all the way to the Supreme Court, Covered California’s executive director Peter Lee said in a statement Saturday. He encouraged those participating in the individual health insurance market to enroll through in the state’s health exchange.

As of September, 20,710 Sonoma County residents a year purchase individual or family health plans through Covered California, according to the latest data from the state health exchange. The vast majority, 14,180 enrollees, opted for a Kaiser Permanente plan. Western Health Advantage and Blue Shield of California had totals of 3,520 and 2,930 Covered California members, respectively.

The Affordable Care Act also expanded Medicaid eligibility and greatly reduced the number of local residents who were uninsured. In October 2013, there were 62,133 people in Sonoma County enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. By October of this year, that number had grown to 103,820 people.

Oscar Chavez, assistant director of the Sonoma County Human Services Department, said the elimination the Affordable Care Act could affect an estimated 30,000 Sonoma County residents. The Texas judge’s ruling “is certainly going to be appealed,” he said.

“From our perspective, it’s business as usual,” Chavez said. “We continue to encourage people who are eligible to sign up for Medi-Cal and the Affordable Care Act.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who championed early implementation of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, said the Texas ruling has no effect on the current Obamacare enrollment.

“If you have coverage, whether it’s through Covered California or Medi-Cal, your coverage is locked down,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213.

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