Asthmatic Woman Believes LA’s Free Health Care Program is Keeping Her Alive

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For years after she lost her job as a telephone operator in 1992, the only health care 57-year-old Nita Thompson received for the severe asthma she developed at the tail-end of her employment was through the kindness of friends and family members who shared their medications with her.

“It may not have been the correct medications, but they did the job,” Thompson recalled on a recent day as she sat in the living room of her 90-year-old father's apartment here.

The periodic health fairs in her neighborhood helped her to monitor her blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It was after one of her asthma attacks in 2008 that Thompson saw a flyer at the Hubert Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center that advertised a Los Angeles County-run safety net pilot program for low-income people with chronic health conditions called Healthy Way LA that launched in 2007. She enrolled in it.

That program evolved in July 2011 into the current version of Healthy Way LA, a program designed to be a “bridge” to Medi-Cal (called Medicaid in the rest of the nation) for low-income uninsured people, who could not qualify for traditional Medi-Cal because of its stringent eligibility requirements.

The logic goes that Thompson and others enrolled in the low-income bridge program will eventually be enrolled in Medi-Cal, when that program expands in 2014 with the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Obama administration’s landmark 2010 federal health care reform law.

Healthy Way LA “mirrors for the most part the benefits of Medi-Cal, except that the number of providers in its network is smaller than in Medi-Cal,” said Amy Luftig Viste, director of Community Partner Programs of the county’s Department of Health Services. That is changing with the addition of more community health care clinics to the network, she said.

Large Uninsured Population

Nearly one-quarter of Los Angeles County’s 9.9 million population is uninsured.

“Los Angeles is considered the ground zero for the uninsured crisis in America,” noted Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a leading voice for health care consumers in California.

Of the county’s uninsured, an estimated 550,000 of them are eligible for the Healthy Way LA program, noted Viste. As of now, only about 210,000 are enrolled, and the county is hoping to up that number to 300,000 by year’s end, she said.

To that end, the county earlier this month launched “Everyone on Board” -- a coalition of community-based organizations that will work to increase enrollment not just in the Healthy Way LA program but other health programs as well.

As of last September, 78,186 Hispanics, or 32 percent of the total eligible, had enrolled in Healthy Way LA, 45,946 blacks, 11,490 Asian and Pacific Islanders, 27,607 whites and 552 Native Americans. The rest of the enrollees, around 36,600, were in the “other” and “unknown” categories.

Funding for the new version is shared equally by the federal government and the county. County residents are eligible for the new program if they are between the ages of 19 and 64, citizens or permanent residents of at least five years, and earn less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level (about $14,500 for an individual and $29,700 for a family of four).

Healthy Way LA is not insurance, and cannot be used outside the county, but it allows patients to receive free primary and specialty care, mental health services, medication and emergency treatment. It also allows them to receive chronic disease management, something that patients like Thompson cannot do without.

All but a handful of California’s 58 counties opted to launch similar Low Income Health Programs (LIHP) so enrollees can easily transition to the expanded Medi-Cal program next January. Thompson will be among them.

Her medicine satchel has an inhaler and other medications she keeps handy to control her asthma and other health issues.

“I have medical issues I have to deal with for the rest of my life,” she said.

Thompson said her positive experience with the program has spurred her to do her own outreach in the African American community.

“If not for Healthy Way LA, I would have died a long time ago,” she said.

This story is part of a New America Media series on the Affordable Care Act, funded by The California Endowment.