OAKLAND -- With about 55,000 of its low-income residents newly eligible for free public health coverage, Alameda County is looking to hire 185 workers to help get them enrolled.
The county government has set up a call center in downtown Oakland to answer questions by phone about the health coverage changes coming Jan. 1 because of the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
California is setting up its own health coverage exchange while also expanding the Medi-Cal safety net, allowing most children and adults under 65 to get subsidized coverage if their incomes are at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
"It's a good thing," said Alameda County Social Services Agency Director Lori Cox, since many of those residents are presently uninsured and end up resorting to expensive emergency room services when they are sick.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to approve $8.3 million in funding for about 185 full-time positions in Cox's agency. The amount will be "completely offset" by federal revenues, according to a letter to the supervisors from Cox.
The county has just 25 people operating the call center now, and officials said they received about 580 calls in the first week since the enrollment period began on Oct. 1. Each county is required to have a call center under the new law, but how many people they have answering phones will vary.
Most of the county's new hires will be "eligibility technicians" helping residents find out if they qualify for free health care, as well as food stamps and welfare-to-work benefits.
Covered California, the state's new health exchange, also operates three call centers, one of them in Concord, taking calls mostly from consumers who can afford to buy an insurance plan. But many of the poorest patients who qualify for Medi-Cal, the state's name for the federal Medicaid program, will be forwarded to the county call centers instead.
More than 221,000 Alameda County residents are already covered by Medi-Cal, but the expansion could bring another 55,000 into its safety net.
Public hospital oversight
Also with Obamacare changes in mind, the Alameda County Medical Center changed its name earlier this year to the Alameda Health System and has been expanding its public hospital consortium to better compete with private hospitals for consumers who will have more choices on the state health insurance exchange.
The network that includes Highland Hospital in Oakland and Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro is preparing to add Alameda and other San Leandro hospitals into its fold.
But several supervisors said Tuesday they wanted more say in how the semiautonomous public hospital authority is governed. The supervisors appoint most of the members of the health system's board of trustees, but the health system's board wants all new appointees to come from a pool of people of their own choosing.
"I would be very uncomfortable with relinquishing any of our authority in making appointments," said Supervisor Nate Miley, describing the appointees as the only way of keeping an eye on the public hospital system.
Added Supervisor Richard Valle: "I am very concerned about the accountability."