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More Alarming News from California

Anthony Wright is executive director of Health Access California, the statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition. He blogs daily at the Health Access Weblog and is a regular contributor to the Treatment.

For weeks, President Obama has not mentioned health reform without invoking the premium rate hikes of up to 39% of Anthem Blue Cross of California, my state’s largest insurer. It’s an explicit reminder that however uncertain voters and elected officials may be about health reform, the current health system is far scarier.

But Duke Helfand of the LA Times, who broke that story, has more bad news from California, with shocking figures that the number of uninsured in the nation’s largest state jumped from 6.4 million to 8.2 million adults in the two years from 2007 to 2009. The new UCLA study indicates that a staggering 24% of Californians under 65 are now uninsured, largely due to people losing coverage with their jobs.

These state-specific statistics come from the respected bi-annual California Health Interview Survey, which is considered highly authoritative given its impressive sample size and detailed questionnaire.

The results are worthy of White House and Congressional attention in this final push for reform, since it underscores the point that even those of us with insurance may find our coverage won’t be there for us when we need it—unless reform passes. The pending health reforms are exactly on point: for those who don’t get coverage through an employer, the reforms provide a subsidy so the premium is not more than a percent of income. In other words, it provides the help needed so that we don’t have to lose coverage when we lose income.

Some of these subsidies will take a while to kick in. But reform would also prevent the rapidly deteriorating situation from getting worse. Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget proposes to eliminate coverage for hundreds of thousands –and without federal reform and resources, many more. We have active proposals to eliminate our child health insurance program, and reducing eligibility to our Medicaid program to our bare minimum—cutting coverage to over 2.7 million additional Californians.

Health reform has some immediate benefits, like providing funding for special coverage for those denied for pre-existing conditions until such denials are phased out in 2014. With the largest individual insurance market in the nation, by both size and percentage, California has hundreds of thousands denied for pre-existing conditions, who have no options at any price. The small, never-advertised program for such “uninsurable” patients has a waiting list. The funds in health reform would dramatically expand the program, even if it won’t meet all the need to start.

California—and the nation—desperately need health reform. “The status quo is not an option” is not just a slogan, but is literally true, as our health system deteriorates rapidly. As described above, each of the three ways that people get coverage is under direct threat—employer-based coverage is dramatically dropping along with jobs in a recession; public health insurance programs are on the chopping block due to state deficits; and those in the individual market see huge rate increases and outright denials with nobody to turn.

As elected officials consider their vote, it’s not enough to weigh the positives of what health reform will accomplish, but also consider what negative impacts will reform prevent in the first place.