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Consumer Advocates Fret About Proposed Covered California Budget Cuts

The board of Covered California fielded complaints from consumer advocates at its monthly meeting Thursday after unveiling a proposed 2017 budget that would cut funding for some programs meant to assist low-income and hard-to-reach communities.

The $308 million budget, which the five–member board of the state insurance exchange will vote on next month, would amount to an 8.1 percent spending cut from this year’s $335 million.

The proposed budget would save $10 million by eliminating a Covered California call center in Contra Costa County, one of three in the state. The call centers are staffed by operators who answer questions from consumers and help them sign up for health coverage. As enrollment has slowed, the need for these centers has diminished, said Peter V. Lee, Covered California’s executive director.

“This is not a reflection of anything negative about the great work that our service center in Contra Costa has done,” he said. “But belt-tightening [means] relooking at what we do.”

Lee said exchange officials had to make some tough calls in drafting the budget for 2017. Next year will be the first in which the exchange must operate without federal funding.

Lee also announced that Covered California wants to terminate its contract with Health Consumer Alliance, a collaborative of legal services that offers assistance to consumers in grievances and appeals.

It would be replaced by a $2 million in-house ombudsman program.

“Do we need an outside resource as well? We’re thinking probably not,” Lee said.

Elizabeth Landsberg, director of policy and advocacy at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a member of the Health Consumer Alliance, told board members she was disappointed to learn of the recommendation to discontinue the partnership.

“We have the tools to resolve these problems and we feel [the Health Consumer Alliance] would be a better source than to set up another infrastructure,” Landsberg said.

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