A Year of Change for Health Care in the Legislature

California made national news last week when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to patients who are terminally ill and want to die. But many quieter bills also will change health care in the state.

The first half of the 2015-2016 legislative session ended last weekend with last-minute bill-signings by the governor. There’s more work to be done, but much was accomplished this year, said Janus Norman, senior vice president at theCalifornia Medical Association.

In particular, “This was a really good year for public health,” Norman said, noting that in June the governor signed a bill tightening requirements for childhood vaccinations.

Other new laws seek to improve access to care at a time when thousands of people are newly insured.

Brown signed legislation that requires weekly updates to provider directories so people know what doctors and hospitals are in a health plan’s network when they shop for coverage or seek care. Another new law requires insurers to cover medically necessary prescription drugs and caps consumer out-of-pocket costs that can be sky-high for new specialty drugs.

And a current loophole in federal law that allows health plans to sell limited benefit or “skinny” plans to large employers has been closed. Come Jan. 1, 2016, big companies must offer comprehensive health insurance like that already required for individuals and small employers.

In other recent action, Brown signed the first law in the nation to protect insurance brokers from last-minute changes in health plan contracts. Another new law will establish a drug formulary for the workers’ compensation system in California.

While a scaled down version of a bill to expand health coverage to undocumented immigrants no longer sets up an alternate health benefits exchange for this population, a new law does make it easier for 170,000 undocumented children to be enrolled in Medi-Cal.

“In California, we aren’t just implementing, we are improving upon health reform, taking additional steps to ensure that patients get the coverage and care they need,” said Anthony Wright, executive director at the consumer group Health Access.

Next up will be a scramble to generate more money for the Medi-Cal program and come up with an acceptable tax that fills the $1.1 billion hole. A committee will look into the issue, but no real action is expected until January.

“We’ve done a remarkable job on access,” said Nicole Kasabian Evans, a spokeswoman for the California Association of Health Plans. “In the last half of session, our real focus must be on affordability.”

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