Covered California czar Peter Lee showed up in Santa Barbara for a hyper-caffeinated media blitzkrieg Friday morning, hosting the grand unveiling of a new surf-themed mural in front of Stand Up Paddle Sports in the Funk Zone. But neither the artist — muralist David Flores — nor any media besides the Santa Barbara Independent made it.
Lee, surrounded a posse of about 12 support staff, a Covered California paddleboard, and a photogenic cluster of white, blue, and yellow balloons, and flanked by a tour bus worthy of a rock band, was not daunted. His real mission was to highlight the fact that the enrollment period for Covered California — the statewide entity coordinating all the health insurance plans that fall under the Affordable Care Act’s rubric — started November 1 and would run through the middle of January. That’s significant for a couple reasons; first, that’s more than a month longer than the federal plan enrollment period that had been foreshortened by the Trump White House. And while Trump has scaled back on funding to promote the new enrollment period, Lee and Covered California — independently funded — are expanding promotions funding from $100 million last year to $111 million this year. Currently, 1.3 million Californians are signed up under various Covered California plans. To maintain that number, Lee is shooting to enroll 400,000.
Lee’s Santa Barbara stop of was one of 22 during his week-long bus tour of the state. When that’s done, he’ll soon embark on another. A verbal kaleidoscope of enthusiastic free association, Lee talked about health being local, art being local, surfing being healthy, the ocean being surfing. He himself does not surf, but — being a deep-water ocean swimmer — managed to take the paddleboard out earlier in the morning for a few strokes.
Flores’s mural — the rough outlines of which had been stenciled onto the front of the paddleboard shop — was of a surfer crouched in the curl of a wave. The owner of the paddleshop, identified as “War Dog,” was on hand as well, claiming to have trademarked the phrase “stoked for life.” “War Dog,” Lee noted, had been in Las Vegas during the recent mass shooting and took some unspecified shrapnel. “Life can change in a moment,” Lee said. “That’s why we have to make sure we have health care behind us.” He would say that more than once.
Aggressively upbeat and relentlessly positive, Lee shrugged off media reports that a 12.4 percent surcharge had been tacked onto the cost of most silver plans. The surcharge, he said, had been added only to the plans of individuals eligible for subsidies. It was necessary to make up for federal cuts to the subsidies by the Trump White House. But, Lee insisted, the subsidies still outstrip the cost of surcharges for 78 percent of those affected.
Some health-care providers in Santa Barbara have acknowledged that the co-pays and deductibles for some of the cheaper Covered California plans are daunting in the extreme. Lee and others extolled the virtues of competitive shopping. In Santa Barbara County — where there are 17,000 enrollees — there’s only one company offering plans, Blue Shield.
In the summer, Anthem Blue Cross announced it was bowing out of the county effective January 2018. That will leave only Blue Shield. Santa Barbara will have the distinction of being the least competitive county in the state. Lee said companies operate on exceeding tight margins — with profits of only one to 2 percent. Lee noted that the lack of competition among hospitals in Santa Barbara “absolutely” increased the cost of doing business for Anthem Blue Cross, noting that in Los Angeles, where the competition between many hospitals drives the costs down, there are more plans to be had.
Compounding matters for local Covered California recipients is that Sansum Clinic doesn’t have a contract with Blue Shield, only Anthem Blue Cross. When that company goes, that will leave 7,000 Sansum patients without coverage. Lee said he’s “encouraging” Sansum and Blue Shield to keep working something out. “This isn’t about knocking heads,” he said. “It’s about Sansum and Blue Shield working together.” If Santa Barbarans were experiencing heartburn from the lack of choice, Lee said most people in the state had “two, three, four, or five” options to pick from.
As far as enrollments go, Lee was effervescently upbeat. “Ninety-six percent of the people know what Covered California is,” he said. “That’s like Coca-Cola.”