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County mulls a bridge to health care 

Federal health-care reform is in the midst of a Supreme Court challenge, the federal budget is set to be chipped at by a congressional supercommittee, the California Legislature continues to face multi-billion-dollar deficits, and San Luis Obispo County has another two years of spending reductions in its future—but local officials think they might be able to take advantage of additional health-care funding in the meantime.

The federal health-care reform package passed in March 2010 will go into effect in January 2014, if it survives a recent constitutionality challenge in U.S. Supreme Court. But already, the California Department of Health Care Services has adopted a so-called “Bridge to Reform,” which would allow the state to take advantage of federal funds for its own health-care programs.

Though none of the details are firm, and indeed the transition is complicated even by the already complicated standards of health-care funding, local officials believe the county has the opportunity to gain federal matching dollars and increase its services to medically indigent adults. County health officials formed a stakeholder work group in September—using a grant from the Blue Shield California Foundation—to evaluate the pros and cons of SLO County participating in the state’s Low Income Health Program (LIHP), according to a county staff report.

Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm told county supervisors on Nov. 15 that the county could potentially increase its funding pool from $8 million to $12 million and increase medical services between now and 2014 when the feds take over.

No one, however, is ready to jump on board just yet. With a still undecided Supreme Court challenge and the unstable budgets at both federal and state levels, county officials worry about what might happen if they approve such a program, but get caught with their pants down later.

“This bridge to wherever; I’m not sure where that bridge is leading,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said, responding to the proposal.

Most supervisors seemed intrigued by the idea, but were wary that it could blow up in their faces. No action has been taken yet, and county health officials plan to come back with more detailed information when it’s available. If all goes as planned, the county could jump on board the state’s LIHP as soon as April 2012.

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