By Danica Granado, Observer Group Newspapers of Southern California Inc. Staffer

SACRAMENTO, California — With the American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021, Covered California took the extra mile of ensuring that the new law offers immediate relief to Americans, especially to the African American community Indeed, Covered California aims “to make healthcare more affordable than ever,” says Peter V. Lee, the Executive Director of the state’s health insurance marketplace last December 14, 2021.

Starting on a positive note, Lee indicated that there has been a record decrease in California’s uninsured rate. While that’s true, there are still over 1.1 million uninsured Californians who are “eligible for financial help to bring the cost of coverage within reach”. Over 943,000 Californians remain uninsured and “could get comprehensive coverage through Covered California or Medi-Cal at no cost.”

Covered California teamed up with African American medical experts in the hopes of urging more Black Californians to acquire both COVID-19 protection, as well as health insurance or coverage. Their primary objective goes beyond promotion, it ventures towards the assurance that medical assistance and security are attained, especially by the African American community.

Coverage Matters: Health and Financial Security

Stressing the financial benefits of Covered California’s health plans, Lee stated that “coverage matters”—true to the primary objective of the briefing. Aside from financial protection, Lee also highlighted the benefits of health security and “peace of mind that health coverage brings”. With middle-income California residents acquiring financial assistance through the American Rescue Plan, they are able to save an average of $800 on a monthly basis.

On another note, Covered California offers various coverage options for those who were able to receive financial aid. “We want everyone to know that signing up now is what they need to do,” says Lee as he introduces California’s official site, CoveredCA.com, where people can easily find and determine their enrolment options.

Covered California’s Financial Assistance on Hospital Charges and Protection from Diseases

Since the onslaught of COVID-19, the worries around hospital charges have tremendously increased among people of color. This concern is made even more daunting due to the lack of financial aid or the absence of health coverage. 

Covered California shows data that 1 out of 10 people who enlisted in their program visited the emergency room from 2019 to 2020. Their hospital costs reached around $8,000 but they only had to spend an average of $375 from their own money, thanks to Covered California’s coverage of nearly 95% of the total charges. 

“Californians who are insured avoid huge financial hardships” says Dr. Alice Chen, the Chief Medical Officer of Covered California’s Emergency Department. While there are many people who suffer not only from physical health issues but also mental health, Dr. Chen emphasized that “when you’re covered, you get the cure you need when you need it.” Immediate care is of vital importance now, especially as Californians face the risks posed by the Omicron variant’s presence in the state. Aside from COVID-19, coverage also offers protection from other terminal diseases such as stroke or heart attack, and even mental health conditions.

The Effects of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of African Americans

African Americans in California significantly took a toll on their mental health due to COVID-19. Dr. Curley Bonds, the Chief Medical Officer of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, raised the issue of how more Black people in California experienced mental health challenges because of the pandemic crisis. “Our failure to address structural racism in our society has caused many adverse effects” Dr. Bonds stated as he emphasized how lack of equity and even empathy led to the increase of emotional and psychological challenges among the Black people.

The stigma on mental health took a small leap forward as more people stepped up to seek services. In June 2020, Dr. Bonds indicated that there has been a 60% increase in calls from people facing depression and anxiety, among other psychological conditions. Significantly, there has been an increase in penetrance rate among African Americans. With these in mind, the essence of access is also highlighted. A coverage plan that’s available and affordable should also be accessible so that people will not think twice about getting insured.

The Role of Primary Care in Health and Financial Security

“Keeping the cost cheaper for primary care saves further expenditures,” says Dr. Justin Britton of Kaiser Permanente Fontana and Ontario Medical Centers when asked about primary care. Dr. Britton proceeded to state that Covered California makes primary care accessible, helping address the cost that prevents people to acquire preventive care in the first place. Coverage plays a major role in acquiring not only security in terms of health condition, but also in financial aspects. Health insurance goes a long way in providing the needed tests or consultations that people need to keep their well-being in check.

“Early detection and treatment of diseases like diabetes and hypertension in your

doctor’s office can decrease your risk of stroke and heart attack.” Dr. Britton said as he urged everyone to get covered, checked, and treated when necessary. Notably, people’s reluctance to get preventive care would not only affect them, but also their kids, families, and other people who they would leave behind when worse comes to worst. “Give yourself peace of mind of financial health accessibility”.

Community Trust and Engagement in the Face of a Pandemic

Dr. Kim Rhoads, Associate Professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Director of the Office of Community Engagement at UCSF, placed community trust and engagement in the limelight to advocate for the Black people’s protection against COVID-19. A 52% vaccination rate among African Americans shows a promising number, but could still be enhanced through the foundation of trust and good relationships between the community and healthcare providers. This is true not only on the front of COVID-19 but also on other matters in the long run. “Trust is critical to getting the vaccine and boosters to California’s most vulnerable populations,” says Dr. Rhoads, as she then proceeded to discuss how trust is built from the ground up and through established relationships.

As such, Dr. Rhoads highlighted their “persistent efforts to increase knowledge about COVID-19 and provide access to resources”, with the primary goal of earning the trust and cultivating good relationships with communities. Similarly, community-based organizations and agencies can step up and grab the opportunity to “address chronic diseases and long-standing disparity”. 

Notably, California is in a much better condition compared to other places in the United States of America in terms of vaccination efforts or rates. Considering the withstanding presence of COVID-19 and the recent developments surrounding the Omicron variant, Dr. Rhoads stated that these would concern people and drive them to get vaccinated and protected. “We’re here as part of a coalition to uplift the African American Community”. With health equity in mind, community engagement shall help people acquire health insurance and as a result, garner access to primary care and medical assistance.

Covered California: Not A Low-Income Program

As Covered California strives to provide health security across the state, it also offers free assistance in California storefronts with the help of over 11,000 Certified and Licensed Insurance Agents. With the rising interest of getting coverage primarily due to COVID-19, the American Rescue Plan gave a significant amount of help in terms of assisting people who could not afford or qualify for health insurance prior to its foundation. Jane Reese-Wilkins, a Certified Agent of Covered California, stated that “there’s no reason for anyone not to have insurance now.”, especially since coverage can be acquired with little to no cost at all. 

“In the Black community, education is key”, says Reese-Wilkins, as she stated the importance of how she works on spreading the word regarding Covered California’s subsidy. With her clients being doctors, lawyers, and even teachers, she stressed that Covered California “is not a low-income program.” Although it is affordable, it still offers quality healthcare and helps to lower hospital or treatment costs. 

Coverage Matters for the African American Community

“We want to make sure that we don’t leave anyone behind in the African American community,” says Peter V. Lee as he underlined the importance of getting this message across. Indeed, trust and community engagement are keys to proper information dissemination and as a result, the attainment of healthcare equity and financial security. By simply visiting CoveredCA.com, one can conveniently acquire a quote and select a coverage plan that would align with their needs or preferences. By “getting covered and staying covered”, the African American community can access primary care, save money, get protection from COVID-19, maintain medical security, and keep their ov