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Accessing Health Care During a Disaster

California is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, but it’s also home to disasters that will likely increase as our climate changes. Disasters often cause immediate chaos and create significant burdens in the aftermath, including obtaining health care.

Survivors of disasters have a right to get health care when, where, and how they need it. Unfortunately, they might have to fight for it. Western Center’s health care advocates created a practice tip for accessing health care after a disaster.

Due to ongoing wildfires and future disasters, survivors may need extra assistance to access health care. Fortunately, several protections help survivors access the services, supplies, and care that they need.

Read the full tip for detailed information about special rights and remedies available to survivors seeking prescription drugs, medical supplies and equipment, physician and specialist care, eligibility and coverage, health plan enrollment changes, and more. In the meantime, here are a few important points to know when trying to access health care in the wake of disaster:

Whether survivors are insured or uninsured, rights and resources exist to help replace prescription drugs, as well as medical supplies and equipment lost or destroyed during disasters. 

  • Uninsured survivors can access prescription drugs and supplies via the Emergency Prescription Assistance Program, which provides free refills with a prescription at participating pharmacies. To locate a participating pharmacy, call 855-793-7470 or click here.
  • Insured survivors can contact their prescribing providers, pharmacies, and/or managed care plans to request refills and replacements.
  • Medi-Cal Dental: Removable dental appliances may be replaced under special expedited procedures (i.e. retainers, space maintainers, partial and full dentures, and joint appliances). Claims for these appliances, exams, and radiographs should not require prior authorization, and limitations should not apply.
  • FEMA Other Needs Assistance provides grants for “necessary expenses and serious needs” caused by the disaster including medical and dental expenses not covered by primary health insurance, including if insurance denies or excludes coverage, or the survivor is uninsured. Apply for FEMA benefits at Disaster Recovery Centers, (800) 621-3362, or online. Contact the California Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative for more information.

Survivors may need access to care and medical appointments urgently during and after a disaster. Several protections require health plans and providers to make care available.

  • Emergency care: Federal law prohibits hospitals from turning away pregnant people in labor and patients facing emergency medical conditions—no matter their insurance status.
  • Dialysis: Patients should first contact their regular dialysis center for help locating a replacement center.
  • If contracted providers are unavailable after a disaster, Medi-Cal managed care plans must still provide adequate provider networks, including by authorizing out-of-network care if no providers are available in network.
  • Medicare Advantage Plans must allow members to access out-of-network care after “a Presidential emergency declaration, a Presidential (major) disaster declaration, a declaration of emergency or disaster by a Governor, or an announcement of a public health emergency by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

During and after a disaster, survivors may need help applying for Medi-Cal and Covered California, or just keeping their existing coverage.

  • Many disaster survivors may be newly eligible for Medi-Cal due to job loss and/or reduction in earnings. They may obtain expedited Medi-Cal.
  • Starting July 1, 2021, many people can get immediate full coverage when they apply for Medi-Cal at CoveredCA.com or by phone at (800) 300-1506. After a disaster, Medi-Cal application requirements are less restrictive. You can apply for Medi-Cal at any time.
  • County welfare offices must continue to provide Medi-Cal eligibility services during and after disasters “without delay.” This includes in-person assistance during regular business hours, plus telephonic and internet access for Medi-Cal applications and renewals.
  • A declared state of emergency in California gives affected individuals a special enrollment period to enroll in Covered California for 60 days after the date of the declaration of state of emergency.

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Note: This resource is for current and future disasters in 2021 and beyond. For the latest rules on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the Health Consumer Alliance’s website, which is kept current with evolving pandemic rules. If you or someone you know needs assistance accessing any of these benefits, please call the Health Consumer Alliance at 888-804-3536 for free, confidential assistance.

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