Despite hurdles, S.F. health care program debuts

Although a judge is expected to rule by November on whether San Francisco’s new health care program for the uninsured runs afoul of federal law by requiring city businesses to financially support their employees’ health care, the program will be rolled out citywide today.

San Francisco made national headlines when the program was announced last year. In July, The City began enrolling a limited number of patients at two Chinatown clinics, and signed more than 1,000 patients up for the program, called Healthy San Francisco. On Monday, the program will expand to 20 more locations, with a goal of having more than 17,000 participants by the end of the year.

Theprogram is designed to provide patients with access to primary, preventative, mental health and emergency care, as well as prescription drugs — at a sliding scale cost — to all uninsured residents, regardless of income, immigration status, or pre-existing medical conditions. San Francisco has an estimated 82,000 residents that do not have health insurance, according to city estimates.

The $196 million program will be predominately funded by redirecting existing health department resources. The City is banking on $28 million a year to come from The City’s business owners who are not providing health care to their employees and approximately $56 million to be raised through sliding scale monthly fees and co-payments from participants.

Business leaders have said they can’t afford the mandated spending, which requires all employers with 20 workers or more to invest $1.17 to $1.85 for each employee hour worked for health care. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association sued over the legislation, claiming the employer-spending mandate violates federal law. A summary judgment on the lawsuit is expected by Nov. 2.

Mayor Gavin Newsom called the lawsuit “unfortunate,” but vowed the Healthy San Francisco program would move forward with or without the funding from employers who have uninsured workers.

The spending requirement is necessary, he said, to prevent businesses from looking at The City’s new universal health program as an opportunity to stop providing health benefits to their employees — hiking the number of uninsured up to a level The City couldn’t afford to cover.

“It’s not the money as much as it is the floor,” Newsom said.

Golden Gate Restaurant Association President Kevin Westlye said the mayor’s argument didn’t hold up to logic, since The City has long provided low-income residents with clinic-based public health care and yet 85 percent of businesses in San Francisco provide some health care, according to city data.

“There’s nothing preventing them from dumping into the system today,” Westlye said.

beslinger@examiner.com

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