CalOptima, Orange County’s health plan for the poor, is looking to fund affordable housing construction – a first for the agency that covers 973,000 residents.

Here are things the health system typically covers:

Wheelchairs, hearing aids, eye exams, medical transport, regular check-ups, prescriptions and treatments for chronic conditions. 


The agency’s thinking beyond the medical setting in terms of community health, namely by getting people off the streets as homeless deaths have increased.

[Read: Does Orange County Need Another Homeless Survey? Report Shows Increase in Deaths]

With a $2.5 million check from CalOptima, a Korean community health center now looks to build low-income housing in central OC.

“We had a piece of land in Garden Grove,” said Ellen Ahn, the executive director of Korean Community Services, a federally-qualified and low-cost healthcare provider for English learners and the uninsured in OC since 1992. “And we’d like to build low-income housing there with health care services.” 

It’s part of new state efforts to integrate Medi-Cal with more social services, which are tasking CalOptima – the county-organized health system that administers Medi-Cal for low-income kids, seniors and disabled people – with thinking more big-picture about its enrolled patients’ needs. 

That means thinking beyond a doctor’s visit, in an idyllic region with a burdensome cost of living. 

Last week, CalOptima board directors approved $29 million in grants to local community groups that provide health services and help finding housing, with $21 million toward financing affordable housing projects. 

It’s the first initiative of its kind out of the county health system, paying for housing unit construction, upgrades to existing units, and the acquisition of others.

And right on Garden Grove Boulevard by Koreatown, Ahn said she’s hoping to build “100-plus units of affordable housing.”

“We got a ground lease and applied to CalOptima for the grant.”

For inspiration, Ahn pointed to a clinic in Los Angeles’ Skid Row called Joshua House, which provides health services on some floors and housing on the others. 

“I thought that it would be really cool to do something like that in OC,” Ahn said. “It’s a little exciting and I think a little crazy and innovative, but I’m just tired of seeing patients with so many housing needs.”

“We’re really excited because we can actually do something about the homelessness crisis.”

Jay W. Lee, a family physician at the KCS Health Center, said housing and health have historically been approached “in a very siloed way.”

“Housing is healthcare,” Lee said. “Mental health is healthcare.”

It comes after CalOptima leaders back in December voted to move $40 million from a “Homeless Health Initiative Fund” to this newer plan to invest in housing and service providers.

And $5.8 million will account for “capacity building” grants in organizations like Grandma’s House of Hope, Family Assistance Ministries, Southland Integrated Services, and the City of Anaheim – all in an effort to help homeless people find housing. 

For instance, the OC transgender advocacy group called Alianza Translatinx will receive more than $221,000 to expand case management and support for transgender and nonconforming people trying to find housing, according to an agency staff report. 

“These dollars are to build the capacity of those nonprofits, and then also ensure that they have housing units (for clients),” said Kelly Bruno-Nelson, an executive director at CalOptima, at the March 6 board meeting.

Specifically, she oversees CalOptima’s local implementation of CalAIM, a statewide initiative to couple clinical care under MediCal with nonmedical services, like getting people covered while in jail before their release, as well as tailored meals and post-hospitalization housing.

 “We’re helping specific populations that are most underserved in our community.”

The agency’s “relatively new at addressing this,” said Ahn, a former CalOptima board member herself. “I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

The health plan’s current total membership counts 973,571 OC residents, according to the agency’s most recent data.

According to the 2020 Census, roughly 3.2 million people live in Orange County.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s termination of the state’s COVID-19 health emergency declaration means income increases could once again disqualify people from their Medi-Cal membership – leaving 13-15% of CalOptima’s population without coverage.

And the enrollments just keep pouring in. 

“We’re averaging 8,000 new individuals every month,” said CalOptima CEO Michael Hunn at the March 6 meeting. “Our overall membership isn’t necessarily going to slow down.”

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