The Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday waded deeper into the highly partisan issue of national healthcare reform and voted to bar the county’s health plan for the poor from selling private health insurance.

The all-Republican board said the intent is to keep the county health plan, known as CalOptima, from competing with private insurance companies as the state moves toward implementing the new national health insurance law.

California is among the first states to get started implementing the federal law, which is scheduled to be in full effect by 2014. The law is a target of Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives and have pledged to repeal it.

CalOptima insures 402,000 residents of Orange County and since the Great Recession began in late 2007, the numbers have been climbing.

In addition, the board directed staff to study whether the county could opt out of any participation in insurance “exchanges,” where private and public agencies can offer health insurance to private individuals.

The exchanges, intended to make it easier for state residents to obtain health insurance, were created by a bill signed late last year by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger.

Supervisors were urged to take action against the reforms by the dozen Republican Assembly members and state Senators who represent pieces of Orange County.

In a Jan. 11 letter to the board, the GOP legislators said the exchanges amounted to an “end-run” around a section of the new national health plan that was rejected last year by Congress.

Julie Puentes, who represents the Hospital Association of Southern California, told the board her organization opposes allowing the county program to compete with private insurers.

Last fall, Puentes told Voice of OC that if CalOptima offered health insurance to individuals who don’t get it at work, it’s possible that more than one-fourth of Orange County’s three million residents could be covered by government health insurance. Her estimate included county residents 65 years and older who are in the Medicare program.

Puentes said if CalOptima offers insurance to those who aren’t covered by employers, the numbers, coupled with those who receive Medicare, would be so large that hospitals couldn’t cover their expenses.

The board acted Tuesday even though CalOptima’s own board voted last week not to offer private insurance.

“Orange County is not going to participate in the exchange,” CalOptima CEO Richard Chambers told California Healthline last week. “Personally, I thought it would be good if we were not so dependent on Medicare,” he said, “but politics have prevailed, and we will not be participating.”

But Supervisors said they wanted to make sure CalOptima didn’t change its mind.


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