A Democratic state senator visited campus Thursday evening to present an informational meeting on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and its implementation in California.
Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) chairs the Senate Committee on Health and is a practicing optometrist and Obamacare supporter from La Puente, Calif. He spoke to more than 60 students, alumni, faculty and staff about Obamacare and how “Covered California,” the state’s new insurance exchange website, works. The event was hosted by both APU’sDepartment of Social Work and the Office of Community Relations.
Event organizers said they began discussing the possibility of hosting an Obamacare informational meeting in February. OCR’s Ginny Dadaian worked with Hernandez’s office, while Mary Rawlings, chair of the Social Work Department, promoted the event to social work students, alumni and the rest of the APU community.
“This is direct social welfare legislation and part of social work is really understanding what is the social welfare system in the United States,” Rawlings said. “Really, this is history. We haven’t had major legislation reform like this since, I would say, welfare reform under President Clinton.”
President Barack Obama signed ACA into law in 2010 and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 2012. The law is essentially an expansion of Medicaid, the country’s health care welfare program for low-income individuals and families.
“If you’re poor, you get free health care. If you’re very wealthy, you get no help. If you’re in between that, you get some kind of assistance … in the form of a tax credit that will help offset your premium,” Hernandez said. “It’s real simple.”
Starting Jan. 1, 2014, most people past the age of 18 will be required to have health insurance. Uninsured adults who do not buy health insurance will be forced to pay a penalty of $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater. The penalty kicks up by 2016 to $695 for individuals and $2,085 for families or 2.5 percent of income, whichever is greater.
Rawlings said she is “absolutely” a supporter of Obamacare, but stressed that the event was “totally nonpartisan.”
“Regardless of what you feel, this is what is,” she said. “It’s really to bring awareness to the community about how does this work, what are the choices, what are the implications. It is a totally informative event.”
Hernandez has several connections to APU. Dadaian met him in 2006 when he was running for Assembly, and he has visited Azusa Pacific several times since, according to Dadaian. Hernandez’s oldest daughter is an APU alumna.
Hernandez went over several basic points during his presentation, such as the new requirements, sign-up procedures, premium costs, the four different health plans and consumer protections under the ACA.
Although the Medicaid expansion does not officially start until January, five states and the District of Columbia decided to start enrolling their residents early, starting at the beginning of October. California, the most populous U.S. state, has an estimated 5.3 million uninsured residents. Of those, 2.6 million will be eligible for subsidized coverage.
California is one of 14 states to set up its own health exchange to comply with the federal policy.
The other 36 states go through the federal website, healthcare.gov, which has been plagued with technical problems.
“There’s been a few glitches but they’ve been working it out,” Hernandez said about the federal site’s issues. “I’m confident the federal government will fix it and work it out.”
According to Hernandez, California was the first state to create its own exchange. Open enrollment for 2014 health care coverage began Oct. 1 and ends March 31, 2014.
“Do not go to the federal Web page – ours is a lot better,” Hernandez joked.
He also assured his audience that people are able to keep their current insurance plans.
“Nothing changes. The only thing this law is going to affect is those individuals who do not have health insurance,” Hernandez told the audience.
However, insurers have ended some policies sold after Obamacare passed in March 2010, citing failure to comply with ACA requirements. Hundreds of thousands of cancellation letters have been sent to people who buy their own coverage, reports Kaiser Health News. In California, Kaiser Permanente has sent cancellation notices to about 160,000 people; Florida Blue is terminating 80 percent of its individual business in Florida; and a major insurer in Philadelphia, Independence Blue Cross, is canceling 45 percent of its individual market customers.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin will propose a law called “If You Like Your Health Plan, You Can Keep It Act,” reports the Weekly Standard. Johnson said Obama has broken his promise that Americans who like their current plans will be able to keep them.
The event comes soon after the first partial government shutdown in 17 years, which started when lawmakers were unable to compromise about Obamacare’s funding.
Many Master of Social Work students attended, as well as faculty and staff outside the Department of Social Work. International Center staff member Anita Tabitha Gunadi said she had some worries about whether Obamacare would make health care more expensive for the middle class, while Robert Welsh, dean of the School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences, said it is “wonderful” when students interact with their local representatives.
Ashley Barrett, an MSW student and Obamacare supporter, said before the meeting that she would be “taking avid notes,” while Catherine Tansey, another MSW student and a registered Republican, said afterward that she still has more questions about the health care policy.
“I’m currently working with the mentally ill and they’re on Medicare (the nation’s health care program for senior citizens and citizens with disabilities), so I was just wondering if this would affect Medicare patients,” she said. “I’m not completely convinced that [Obamacare’s] the best, but it sounds good.”
Sophomore social work major Yesenia Martinez attended the session for extra credit for her Social Welfare Policy and Service class with Debra Baker. She said the meeting was informative and that she thinks Obamacare is a good policy, but Hernandez could have done a better job if he had addressed more criticisms about Obama’s program.
“Obviously he wants to make it look really good, but we should all be aware of the positive and negative sides of it and not just be drawn into it from what he said,” Martinez said.
Under Obamacare, young adults are able to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, prompting some 20-somethings to remain indifferent to the new health care policy.
Senior social work major Christopher Chenet, an intern for Hernandez’s office, said he expected more and harder questions during the Q&A.;
“There were a lot of questions about how the ACA will affect illegal immigrants. I expected students to think about themselves, as students, and how being under the age of 26 they can still be enrolled under their parents,” he said. “That’s a huge deal for students.”
The married 27-year-old works at a local group home facility and receives insurance under both his work and his wife’s work. He says he “definitely” supports the new health care policy, citing connections with two people who have “literally gone bankrupt” from medical expenses.
“One of the biggest things I see is that there’s a limit. People will not go bankrupt on this and that is huge,” Chenet said.
The Obama administration delayed the deadline to sign up by six weeks, giving enrollees until March 31 instead of Feb. 15 to finish applying. Some U.S. Senate Democrats have joined House Republicans in voicing support for delaying Obamacare sign up deadlines beyond March 31 due to the Obamacare website’s ongoing technical problems that are making it difficult for people to enroll.