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Sonoma County ramps up for launch of new health insurance exchange

  • New Sonoma County benefits eligibility workers study the details of the Affordable Care Act at a training center off Airport Boulevard in Santa Rosa last month. The walls are lined with posters bearing information on filling out application forms for the new health care program. (Kent Porter / PD)

In a bland industrial office building off Airport Boulevard, dozens of newly hired county employees have been logging what must seem like endless hours of training in preparation for the launch of President Barack Obama's health care law.

At one end of the room, overlooking rows and rows of computer stations, an instructor walks trainees through each line of an application for health care coverage and subsidies. Computer screen after computer screen, the instructor navigates the bureaucratic minutiae that will determine what kind of health insurance thousands of North Coast residents will be eligible for on Oct. 1, when the state's health insurance marketplace opens for business.

These 42 benefits eligibility workers are part of a massive, national campaign that involves a diverse cast of characters, from county employees to doctors, nurses, private insurance brokers and Internet entrepreneurs — even as some members of Congress wage a last-ditch effort to kill Obamacare.

“It took Medicare a number of years to roll out,” said Rita Scardaci, director of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. “Our goal is that everyone will not only get coverage, but will get access to care.”

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, millions of uninsured Americans will be eligible for medical insurance through several major changes in the health care landscape.

The law will require most individuals to have health insurance coverage or face a penalty beginning Jan. 1, though some will be exempted from the requirement, including those who choose not to comply for religious reasons.

There are approximately 70,000 Sonoma County residents who do not have health insurance. Of these, 50,000 individuals will be eligible for insurance under the health care law's expanded coverage provisions.

In a move that affects millions of Americans, the federal government is also lowering eligibility requirements for its Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal in California. That alone is expected to add another 18,000 Medi-Cal members to the county's existing 60,000, said Jerry Dunn, director of the county Department of Human Services.

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