These are unprecedented times. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic. Subsequently, on March 13, 2020, President Trump declared a national emergency. Fast forward several weeks, and Californians are adjusting to Governor Newsom’s Executive Order to “shelter in place” in an attempt to bend the curve of COVID-19. For many Californians, and across the country, our lives and our livelihoods have been turned upside down and we are adjusting to this new normal. But, this is not normal. Our health care system is severely strained, small businesses are closing, and our spirits are being tested. Low wage and seasonal workers, immigrants, and people of color have the potential to be the hardest hit by this public health emergency and any sensible relief efforts need to keep these populations in mind.
Here in CA, we’re taking swift action to combat the spread of COVID-19 and ensure we protect access to affordable health coverage and care for as many Californians as possible. Effective Friday, March 20, Covered California announced a COVID-19 Special Enrollment Period (SEP) that allows anyone uninsured and eligible to enroll in health care coverage through Covered California to sign up through June 2020. This creates a pathway for the many Californians experiencing job loss because of the COVID-19 public health emergency to enroll in coverage on or off the Exchange. After selecting a plan, coverage will begin on the first of the following month so that consumers will not have a gap in coverage.
As of today, ten other states and the District of Columbia have reopened their marketplaces to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Increasing access to coverage and care is the sensible thing to do to protect the health of the American people and to prevent further spread of COVID-19, and we’re pleased to see Covered California has taken this action. Disappointingly, to date, the federal government has failed to open the federal exchange that runs marketplaces for 32 states despite a letter numerous Senators sent to CMS urging them to open the exchange for the uninsured and the underinsured.
The California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS), which administers Medi-Cal to roughly 13 million Californians, is also taking steps to ensure low-income Californians can easily access continued coverage and care during these turbulent times. California has put a 90-day hold on Medi-Cal renewals and has instructed counties to delay discontinuances and negative actions for Medi-Cal, MCAP and CCHIP for 90 days. These efforts free up county resources for those who need to enroll now and sustain coverage for those who are already enrolled. The Department also sought Medi-Cal flexibility in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis through an 1135 waiver. CMS partially approved California’s 1135 waiver on March 23, 2020. The waiver suspends prior authorization requirements, increases access to fair hearings, and waives some provider enrollment criteria to meet increased demand during the public health crisis, among other flexibilities. California’s waiver approval has not yet met many of DHCS’ initial requests but NHeLP and other health advocates across the state will continue to work with DHCS to implement administrative changes that will benefit the Medi-Cal population, and lessen the burden of this public health crisis.
While no one planned for a pandemic we do have control over how we respond. California is taking the necessary steps to protect people who live here and we will need to continue to be proactive to meet the ever-changing needs of the health and welfare of all Californians in the weeks and months to come.