Lawmakers announce renewed push for Medi-Cal funding

Lawmakers push for new spending on healthcare program for California's poor

California lawmakers and advocates are gearing up for a new chapter in the battle over the state's healthcare program for the poor.

They announced new legislation on Wednesday that would pump more money into Medi-Cal, which has expanded to cover more residents even while suffering from recession-era funding cuts.

The bills (SB 243 and AB 366) would reverse cuts to doctors who treat Medi-Cal patients. It also would go further, requiring higher payments from managed care plans that contract with the state and boosting funding for hospitals.

Lawmakers said the money is necessary to ensure there's enough healthcare providers in California willing to treat poor patients through the Medi-Cal program.

"Millions of Californians are walking around with insurance cards that hold no or little weight," said Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), who authored one of the bills. "That insurance card should ensure access."

It's unclear how much the legislation would cost taxpayers. Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) said estimates are still being developed, but the final price tag could be at least $5 billion.

That's likely to be far more than Gov. Jerry Brown would be willing to spend. So far, Brown has refused to reverse Medi-Cal cuts and tried to dampen expectations for new spending in the budget.

"We have to at least have the conversation," Hernandez said. "The costs will continue to escalate if we don't address these issues."

Brown administration officials have defended Medi-Cal by saying they're always working to ensure people who are eligible for the program can get the healthcare they need.

During a hearing on Wednesday, Hernandez asked Jennifer Kent, director of the state Department of Health Care Services, whether Medi-Cal patients have the same access to doctors as Silicon Valley workers.

"Yes or no?" he said.

"Yes," Kent said.

"I don't think so," Hernandez replied.

Follow @chrismegerian for more updates from Sacramento.

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