Central Coast’s Largest Insurer Braces for COVID Surge

Cottage Hospital Reports Zero Cases as CenCal Health Stocks Up on COVID Monitoring Devices

Pulse oximeters like the one above measure COVID-positive patients’ oxygen saturation levels and can let them know when it’s the time to seek medical attention. | Credit: Wikicommons

Sometimes, the numbers just won’t add up neatly. For example, at the same time public health authorities are warning that a possible spike in COVID cases in Isla Vista might send Santa Barbara County back to the most restrictive of the state’s four COVID-19 categories — purple — Cottage Hospital is reporting zero confirmed and zero suspected COVID cases in its downtown hospital.

This dichotomy imperfectly mirrors that wide divergence in the record-setting spike in new COVID positive cases emerging nationwide and the progress California has been demonstrating since late this summer to bring its numbers down to acceptable levels. Even so, local health officials are bracing for a possible surge as the days get shorter and cooler and flu season commences.

CenCal Health, the largest health insurance provider on the Central Coast, just bought and distributed 2,000 pulse oximeters for doctors and COVID-positive patients in its coverage domain in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. These devices function as the equivalent of Fitbits when it comes to measuring a patient’s pulse rate and oxygen saturation level, both key determinants for medical professionals tracking the severity of breathing challenges confronting COVID-positive patients.

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“We don’t want people showing up at the Emergency Rooms too soon,” said Paul Jaconette, chief financial officer for CenCal, “but we don’t want them to wait ’til things get too bad, either.”

Jaconette said that many of these devices — which slip easily over the tip of a person’s index finger — will be sent home with COVID-positive patients, allowing themselves to monitor their own readings. COVID impairs the body’s ability to pass inhaled oxygen through the lungs and distribute it throughout the body. If and when the oxygen saturation levels dip down to 90-95 percent, Jaconette said, that’s the time for them to seek medical attention.

CenCal functions as the centralized insurance provider for people with means limited enough that they qualify for MediCal coverage. Since the pandemic struck in March, Jaconette said CenCal’s enrollments have swelled by 10 percent because Central Coast workers either lost jobs that provided insurance or lost enough hours that they could no longer afford the insurance. Since the end of February — right before the pandemic officially started in California — he said the number of enrollees jumped from 176,609 to 190,410. “That’s a lot,” he commented.

Of CenCal’s total number of enrollees, about 58,000 were allowed to enroll only because of provisions written into the Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2014. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act early this November. Should the Supreme Court conclude any or all portions of the Affordable Care Act are unconstitutional, the legal validity of these CenCal policies could be vulnerable as well.

Jaconette said the State of California has vowed — in the past — to provide backup coverage should the federal government cease underwriting such policies. But he added that the state’s financial wherewithal — a COVID-related budget deficit of $54 billion — might be limited.

Much has been made about the trickle-down impacts of the COVID pandemic with regard to mental health and substance abuse, most notably. In Santa Barbara County, AMR — the private company that contracts with the county to provide paramedic and ambulance service — reported that the number of opioid-suspected overdose calls for service increased from 210 last year to 247 this year for March through September. For the month of October last year, there were 64 calls for service; this year, there have been 53, but the month still has a week to go.

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