‘Separate and Unequal’: Critics Say Pricey Medicaid Reforms Leave Most Patients Behind

LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t precisely an emergency, however Michael Reed, a safety guard who lives in Watts, had again ache and ran out of his blood stress medicine. Uncertain the place else to show, he went to his native emergency room for a refill.

Across the similar time, James Woodard, a homeless man, appeared for his third go to that week. He wasn’t in medical misery. Nurses stated he was probably excessive on meth and simply on the lookout for a spot to relaxation.

In an overflow tent exterior, Edward Inexperienced, a restaurant prepare dinner, described listening to voices and needing medicine for his bipolar dysfunction.

The three sufferers had been amongst dozens who packed the emergency room at MLK Group Hospital, a bustling well being care complicated in South Los Angeles reincarnated from the outdated hospital often known as “Killer King” for its horrific affected person care. The brand new campus serves the 1.3 million residents of Willowbrook, Compton, Watts, and different neighborhoods — a closely Black and Latino inhabitants that suffers disproportionately excessive charges of devastating persistent situations like diabetes, liver illness, and hypertension.

Arguably, not one of the three males ought to have gone, on this heat April afternoon, to the emergency room, a spot meant to handle extreme and life-threatening instances — and the place care is extraordinarily costly.

However sufferers and docs say it’s practically not possible to discover a well timed medical appointment or obtain satisfactory care within the impoverished group, the place quick meals is straightforward to return by and contemporary vegatables and fruits aren’t. Liquor shops outnumber grocery shops, and homeless encampments are overflowing. A staggering 72% of sufferers who obtain care on the hospital depend on Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income folks.

“For some folks, the emergency room is a final resort. However for therefore many individuals who dwell right here, it’s actually all there may be,” stated Dr. Oscar Casillas, who runs the division. “Most of what I see is preventable — preventable with regular entry to well being care. However we don’t have that right here.”

The group is brief 1,400 docs, in keeping with Dr. Elaine Batchlor, the hospital’s CEO, who stated her facility is drowning underneath a surge of sufferers who’re sicker than these in surrounding communities. For example, the demise charge from diabetes is 76% increased locally than in Los Angeles County as a complete, 77% increased for hypertension — an early indicator of coronary heart illness — and 50% increased for liver illness.

However dramatic modifications are afoot that would herald enhancements in care — or cement the stark well being disparities that persist between wealthy and poor communities.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is spearheading a large experiment in Medi-Cal, pouring practically $9 billion right into a five-year initiative that targets the sickest and costliest sufferers and gives them with nonmedical advantages resembling home-delivered meals, cash for housing move-in prices, and residential repairs to make dwelling environments safer for folks with bronchial asthma.

The idea — which is being examined in California on a bigger scale than anyplace else within the nation — is to enhance affected person well being by funneling cash into social applications and maintaining sufferers out of expensive establishments resembling emergency departments, jails, nursing houses, and psychological well being disaster facilities.

The initiative, often known as CalAIM, appears like an antidote to among the ills that plague MLK. But solely a sliver of its sufferers will obtain the brand new and costly advantages.

Simply 108 sufferers — the hospital treats about 113,000 folks yearly — have enrolled since January. Statewide, well being insurers have signed up greater than 97,200 sufferers out of roughly 14.7 million Californians with Medi-Cal, in keeping with state officers. And whereas a rising variety of Medi-Cal enrollees are anticipated to obtain the brand new advantages within the coming years, most won’t.

Prime state well being officers argue that the broader Medi-Cal inhabitants will profit from different parts of CalAIM, which is a multipronged, multiyear effort to spice up sufferers’ total bodily and psychological well being. However docs, hospital leaders, and medical health insurance executives are skeptical that this system will essentially enhance the standard of take care of these not enrolled — together with entry to docs, one of many largest challenges for Medi-Cal sufferers in South Los Angeles.

“The state is now saying it is going to enable Medicaid {dollars} to be spent on issues like housing and nutritious meals — and people issues are actually essential — however they’re nonetheless not prepared to pay for medical care,” Batchlor stated.

Batchlor has been lobbying the Newsom administration and state lawmakers to repair primary well being take care of the state’s poorest residents. She believes that rising funds for docs and hospitals that deal with Medi-Cal sufferers may result in enhancements in each high quality and entry. The state and the 25 managed-care insurance policy it pays to offer well being advantages to most Medi-Cal enrollees reimburse suppliers so little for care that it perpetuates “racism and discrimination,” she stated.

Batchlor stated the hospital will get about $150, on common, to deal with a Medi-Cal affected person in its emergency room. However it will obtain about $650 if that affected person had Medicare, she stated, whereas a affected person with business medical health insurance would set off a cost of about $2,000.

The hospital introduced in $344 million in income in 2020 and spent roughly $330 million on operations and affected person care. It loses greater than $30 million a 12 months on the emergency room alone, Batchlor stated.

Medicaid is mostly the bottom payer in well being care, and California is among the many lowest-paying states within the nation, consultants say.

“The charges aren’t excessive sufficient for suppliers to apply. Go to Beverly Hills and people individuals are overdosing on well being care, however right here in Compton, sufferers are dying 10 years earlier as a result of they’ll’t get well being care,” Batchlor stated. “That’s why I name it separate and unequal.”

Newsom in September vetoed a invoice that will have boosted Medi-Cal cost charges for the hospital, saying the state can’t afford it. However Batchlor isn’t giving up. Nor are different hospitals, affected person advocates, Medi-Cal well being insurers, and the state’s influential docs’ foyer, that are working to steer Newsom and state lawmakers to pony up more cash for Medi-Cal.

It’ll be a troublesome promote. Newsom’s prime well being officers defend California’s charges, saying the state has boosted pay for collaborating suppliers by providing bonus and incentive funds for enhancements in well being care high quality and fairness — even because the state provides Medi-Cal recipients to the system.

“We’ve been probably the most aggressive state in increasing Medi-Cal, particularly with the addition of undocumented immigrants,” stated Dustin Corcoran, CEO of the California Medical Affiliation, which represents docs and is spearheading a marketing campaign to foyer officers. “However now we have performed nothing to handle the affected person entry aspect to well being care.”


The hospital beforehand often known as Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Middle was compelled to close down in 2007 after a Los Angeles Occasions investigation revealed the county-run hospital’s “lengthy historical past of harming, and even killing, these it was meant to serve.” In a single well-publicized case, a homeless lady was writhing in ache and vomiting blood whereas janitors mopped round her. She later died.

MLK Group Hospital rose from its ashes in 2015 as a personal, nonprofit safety-net hospital that runs largely on public insurance coverage and philanthropy. Its state-of-the-art amenities embrace a middle to deal with folks with diabetes and stop their limbs from being amputated — and the hospital is making an attempt to achieve homeless sufferers with a brand new road medication crew.

Nonetheless, a long time after the lethal 1965 Watts riots spurred building of the unique hospital — which was presupposed to deliver high-quality well being care to poor neighborhoods in South Los Angeles — many disparities persist.

Lower than a mile from the hospital, 60-year-old Sonny Hawthorne rattled by means of some trash cans on the sidewalk. He was raised in Watts and has been homeless for many of his grownup life, apart from stints in jail for housebreaking.

He hustles on his bike doing odd jobs for money, resembling cleansing yards and recycling, however stated he has bother filling out job functions as a result of he can’t learn. Most of his day is spent simply surviving, trying to find meals and shelter.

Hawthorne is considered one of California’s estimated 173,800 homeless residents, most of whom are enrolled in Medi-Cal or qualify for this system. He has diabetes and hypertension. He had been on psychotropic medication for melancholy and paranoia however hasn’t taken it in months or years. He can’t keep in mind.

“They wished me to return again in two weeks, however I didn’t go,” he stated of an emergency room go to this 12 months for persistent foot ache related to diabetes. “It’s an excessive amount of duty generally.”

Hawthorne’s persistent well being situations and homelessness ought to qualify him for the CalAIM initiative, which might give him entry to a case supervisor to assist him discover a main care physician, tackle untreated medical situations, and navigate the brand new social companies which may be obtainable to him underneath this system.

But it surely’s lower than him whether or not he receives the brand new advantages.

The state has yielded super energy to Medi-Cal’s managed-care insurance coverage firms to resolve which social companies they are going to provide. Additionally they resolve which of their sickest and most susceptible enrollees get them.

One profit all plans should provide is intensive care administration, through which sure sufferers are assigned to case managers who assist them navigate their well being and social service wants, get to appointments, take their medicines often, and eat wholesome meals.

Plans may present advantages from amongst 14 broad classes of social companies, resembling six months of free housing for some homeless sufferers discharged from the hospital, beds in sobering facilities that enable sufferers to get better and get clear exterior the emergency room, and help with every day duties resembling grocery purchasing.

L.A. Care Well being Plan, the most important Medi-Cal managed-care insurer in Los Angeles County, with greater than 2.5 million enrollees, is contracting with the hospital, which can present housing and case administration companies underneath the initiative. For now, the hospital is concentrating on sufferers who’re homeless and repeat emergency room guests, stated Fernando Lopez Rico, who helps homeless sufferers get companies.

Up to now, the hospital has referred 78 sufferers to case managers and enrolled 30 different sufferers in housing applications. Just one has been positioned in everlasting housing, and about 17 have acquired assist getting non permanent shelter.

“It is extremely troublesome to put folks,” Lopez Rico stated. “There’s nearly nothing obtainable, and we get numerous hesitancy and pushback from personal property homeowners not eager to let these people or households dwell there.”

Patrick Alvarez, 57, has diabetes and was dwelling in a shed with out working water till July, when an an infection in his ft grew so unhealthy that he had a number of toes amputated.

The hospital despatched him to a rehabilitation and restoration heart, the place he’s studying to stroll once more, receiving counseling, and on the lookout for everlasting housing.

If he finds a spot he can afford, CalAIM pays his first month’s and final month’s lease, the safety deposit, and maybe even utility hookup charges.

However the hunt for housing, even with the assistance of recent advantages, is arduous. A one-bedroom residence he noticed in September was going for $1,600 a month and required a deposit of $1,600. “It’s horrible, I can’t afford that,” he stated.

Hawthorne wants assist simply as badly. However he’s unlikely to get it since he doesn’t have a telephone or everlasting tackle — and wouldn’t be straightforward for the hospital to seek out. The homeless encampments the place he lives are routinely cleared by legislation enforcement officers.

“We now have so many extra individuals who need assistance than are capable of get it,” Lopez Rico stated. “There aren’t sufficient sources to assist everybody, so just some folks get in.”


L.A. Care has referred about 28,400 members to CalAIM case managers, roughly 1% of its whole enrollees, in keeping with its CEO, John Baackes. It’s providing housing, meals, and different social companies to even fewer: about 12,600 folks.

CalAIM has the potential to dramatically enhance the well being of sufferers who’re fortunate sufficient to obtain new advantages, Baackes stated. However he isn’t satisfied it is going to save the well being care system cash and believes it is going to depart behind thousands and thousands of different sufferers — with out better funding within the broader Medi-Cal program.

“Entry is just not pretty much as good for Medi-Cal sufferers as it’s for folks with means, and that could be a basic downside that has not modified with CalAIM,” Baackes stated.

Proof exhibits that primary Medi-Cal affected person care is commonly subpar.

Yr-over-year analyses printed by the state Division of Well being Care Companies, which administers Medi-Cal, have discovered that, by some measures, Medi-Cal well being plans are getting worse at caring for sufferers, not higher. Among the many most up-to-date findings: The charges of breast and cervical most cancers screenings for girls had been worse in 2020 than 2019, even when the calls for that covid-19 positioned on the well being care system had been factored into the evaluation. Hospital readmissions elevated, and diabetes care declined.

“The influence of covid is actual — suppliers shut down — however we additionally know we’d like numerous enchancment in entry and high quality,” stated State Medicaid Director Jacey Cooper. “We don’t really feel we’re the place we needs to be in California.”

Cooper stated her company is cracking down on Medi-Cal insurance policy which can be failing to offer satisfactory care and is strengthening oversight and enforcement of insurers, that are required by state legislation to offer well timed entry to care and sufficient community docs to serve all their members.

The state can be requiring collaborating well being plans to signal new contracts with stricter quality-of-care measures.

Cooper argues CalAIM will enhance the standard of take care of all Medi-Cal sufferers, describing points of the initiative that require well being plans to hook sufferers up with main care docs, join them with specialty care, and develop detailed plans to maintain them out of pricey remedy zones just like the emergency room.

She denied that CalAIM will depart thousands and thousands of Medi-Cal sufferers behind and stated the state has elevated incentive and bonus funds so well being care suppliers will deal with enhancing care whereas implementing the initiative.

“CalAIM targets people who find themselves homeless and intensely high-need, however we’re additionally specializing in wellness and prevention,” she advised KHN. “It truly is a wholesale reform of all the Medicaid system in California.”

A refrain of docs, hospital leaders, medical health insurance executives, and well being care advocates level to Medi-Cal reimbursement charges because the core of the issue. “The persistent situation in Medi-Cal is underfunding,” stated Linnea Koopmans, CEO of the Native Well being Plans of California.

Though the state has restored some earlier Medi-Cal charge cuts, there’s no transfer to extend base funds for docs and hospitals. Cooper stated the state is utilizing tobacco tax {dollars} and different state cash to draw extra suppliers to the system and to entice docs who already take part to simply accept extra Medi-Cal sufferers.

When Newsom vetoed the invoice to offer increased reimbursements primarily for emergency room care at MLK, he stated the state can not afford the “tens of thousands and thousands” of {dollars} it will value.

MLK leaders vow to proceed pushing, whereas different hospitals and the highly effective California Medical Affiliation plot a bigger marketing campaign to attract consideration to the low cost charges.

“Californians who depend on Medi-Cal — two-thirds of whom are folks of coloration — have a tougher time discovering suppliers who’re prepared to take care of them,” stated Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokesperson for the California Hospital Affiliation.

For Dr. Oscar Casillas at MLK, the problem is important. Though he’s a extremely educated emergency doctor, most days he practices routine main care, addressing fevers, persistent foot and again ache, and missed medicines.

“When you put your self within the sneakers of our sufferers, what would you do?” requested Casillas, who beforehand labored as an ER physician within the prosperous coastal metropolis of Santa Monica. “There’s no cheap entry in the event you’re on Medi-Cal. Many of the suppliers are by the seaside, so emergency departments like ours are left holding the bag.”

KHN (Kaiser Well being Information) is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points. Along with Coverage Evaluation and Polling, KHN is without doubt one of the three main working applications at KFF (Kaiser Household Basis). KFF is an endowed nonprofit group offering info on well being points to the nation.


This story could be republished free of charge (particulars).


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