Healthy S.F. program gains four participating hospitals

San Francisco’s year-old free health care program has expanded to four new hospitals, and officials say it will be available to all residents within two years.

Four public and private health care agencies — Saint Francis, St. Mary’s, California Pacific Medical Center and UCSF — will now accept Healthy San Francisco applicants, in addition to the 26 clinics and health care centers already participating.

About 25,000 people have enrolled in Healthy S.F. since July 2007, according to data from the Department of Public Health. That is almost one-third of the estimated 73,000 people living in San Francisco without insurance.

Those numbers, however, are far from the projections announced at the beginning of the program. At the unveiling of Healthy S.F. last year at North East Medical Services in Chinatown, city leaders projected that more than 50,000 uninsured would sign up by this time.

But weeks after unveiling the pilot program at two clinics, officials realized they would have to accept applications in phases. Between September and December, only residents making less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level could apply for full health care benefits, meaning a family of four making less than $21,200 a year would be eligible.

“We had a lot of pent-up demand,” Department of Public Health Director Mitchell Katz said. “You can’t just take in 73,000 people on one day and provide them with quality care.”

In January, city residents who make below 300 percent of the poverty level were invited to join, and in January 2009, residents making 500 percent above the federal poverty level will be eligible. Mayor Gavin Newsom said all residents will be eligible for the program within the next two years.

While the health care initiative has been praised by most, the way it’s funded — through mandatory employer contributions — has hit some legal hurdles.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association challenged the requirement, and in December 2007 federal Judge Jeffrey White ruled against The City. Several weeks later, however, a three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an emergency stay, allowing the requirement to be enforced. The appeals court has yet to issue a ruling.

bbegin@sfexaminer.com  

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