For most adults in California, free preventive health screenings have long been offered as part of the state’s Medi-Cal program, the health insurance plan for low-income people.
But starting on Thursday, all adults now get preventive services — including annual physicals and mammograms — free of charge at all the 50 county public health centers in the state. They also get other vaccinations, such as meningitis and hepatitis B.
California’s Department of Public Health said the measure would save hundreds of millions of dollars annually in the state’s health care program, while making the physical exam more accessible to low-income adults in need.
“We are one of the first states to adopt this policy,” said Dr. Karen Smith, the state’s health director. “We know from behavioral economics research that health promotion efforts like this have an enormous impact on improving health.”
At the Richmond Community Health Center, California’s largest public health clinic, health care workers already provide free health screening and a flu shot, among other services, to virtually all of the more than a million patients they see every year.
But Dr. Ashang Jaswal, the health center’s chief executive, said some patients might be too healthy to need health screenings, and that the new policy was long overdue.
“There will be a lot of people who are healthy, but have money who will qualify for free health care for the first time,” she said. “I can see myself, 15 years from now, having offices all over my neighborhood.”
She said that thanks to the new policy, many other existing services, such as screenings for chronic lung disease, might become more affordable and expanded.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has already estimated that the cost to public health centers to administer the program is expected to be about $84.5 million a year. The first three years of the program is slated to run through 2020.
Some of the clinics and nonprofits that run Medi-Cal clinics welcomed the initiative.
“We see it as a huge opportunity for all of our caregivers,” said Julia Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit California Alliance for Community Health Centers. “The public health centers are an underutilized source of care for people who can’t afford it.”
But at another hospital in Oakland, one of the state’s largest public health centers, officials were not impressed by the new policy, or the circumstances in which it was introduced.
Lance Foley, the director of clinical services at the Livermore Valley Health Department Center, said the free preventive health screenings could mean the difference between saving or losing Medicaid money. “It’s becoming more and more acute for us,” he said. “We do see the problem.”
With federal subsidies to help low-income people afford health insurance set to expire in 2018, the new state policy helps address two of the state’s most pressing health care concerns.
It does not eliminate the requirement for some Medi-Cal recipients to get a yearly physical. In addition, the federal tax overhaul that passed in December cut subsidies for these people, so the state policy may help avoid even more pressure on its public health programs.