As GOP deliberates in Washington, Californians fear for their health coverage

File: Evening arrives at the Capitol building, covered in scaffolding for major repairs, on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
File: Evening arrives at the Capitol building, covered in scaffolding for major repairs, on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

More than half of Californians fear they or their loved ones will lose health coverage if the Affordable Care Act is repealed and replaced, a new statewide poll shows.

A poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, released Tuesday, unmasks a deep sense of insecurity across the Golden State, especially among low-income residents and people enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program for low-income people.

The poll found that 56 percent of Californians worry that they or someone in their family will lose health insurance if the federal health care law, also known as Obamacare, is terminated.

The level of concern jumps dramatically among Californians whose household income is less than $20,000 per year and people enrolled in Medi-Cal.

About 4 in 5 people in those categories fret over the potential loss of coverage.

“We all have friends or relatives who are or have been on this program,” said Jennifer Kent, director of the state Department of Health Care Services, which administers Medi-Cal.

“The state has literally bent over backwards to make the ACA work,” Kent said. “This poll is basically now showing that people are appreciating what has been built and are worried that it’s going to be taken back down again.”

A GOP bill passed by the House in early May would not only eliminate the major planks of Obamacare but also cap the flow of federal dollars going to Medicaid. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the proposal would leave 23 million more people uninsured by 2026 than under Obamacare and reduce federal spending on Medicaid by $834 billion over 10 years.

The House sent its measure to the U.S. Senate, whose leaders now are secretly drafting their own version of a health bill and aiming for a vote before July 4.

With the ACA facing a major existential risk, its popularity in California has never been higher. The poll found that roughly two-thirds of state residents support the law.

That represents a record level of public support, said poll director Mark DiCamillo.

“Health care is important. It’s kind of a family issue for a lot of people,” he said. “There’s just a lot of concern about the cuts, or the potential for cuts, and the changes that may be made to the Affordable Care Act. It’s really having an impact in California.”

Pollsters, who conducted the survey on behalf of the California Health Care Foundation, interviewed 1,845 Californians through most of May. (California Healthline is an editorially independent publication of the California Health Care Foundation.)

Medi-Cal was a major focus of the poll, and more than two-thirds of respondents said it is important to them and their families.

Diana Mullis of Sacramento said it would be “scary” if her husband and 4-year-old daughter lost their Medi-Cal coverage.

Her daughter is healthy, and she mostly sees doctors for routine shots and check-ups. But Mullis, 33, knows that Medi-Cal will protect her family from massive medical bills and bankruptcy should her daughter or husband ever land the hospital.

“That’s not going to be the case if things roll back,” said Mullis, who has employer-sponsored insurance.

Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, supports the repeal and replacement of the ACA. He believes fearful Californians are being influenced by media coverage.

“Are they getting the full picture of what an effort to repeal and replace Obamacare would look like? I would suggest they’re not getting a full picture,” he said.

He pointed to the majority of Californians who have employer-based coverage and said they wouldn’t be dramatically impacted by an Obamacare repeal.

“The vast majority of Californians, if the ACA goes away, probably won’t see an effect one way or the other,” he said.

And those on Medi-Cal may not lose their coverage, especially if California takes its own steps to keep residents insured, he added.

“California could make the decision to raise taxes,” he said.

But Kent, director of the state’s health care department, counts herself among the worried Californians. She said she has been losing sleep over the future of the ACA and Medi-Cal.

“Any change at the federal level that happens in Medicaid has the potential to have both serious and/or catastrophic effects in the state,” she said.

Emily Bazar is a correspondent for California Healthline, which is produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

California Healthline reporter Pauline Bartolone contributed to this report.