Mask Rules Are Suddenly Back In California As Coronavirus Hits Danger Zone

Palisades Charter High School students ride the Metro E line train on April 21.

Source: Los Angeles Times, by Rong-Gong Lin II and Christian Martinez

Suddenly, California officials are moving toward new indoor mask rules as coronavirus cases enter the danger zone in many parts of the state.

The virus has been spreading rapidly across California after a spring of big declines. That is setting up an anxious summer in which officials are now talking about a return to mask wearing to prevent wider spread.

So far, the biggest concerns have been in Northern California. But Los Angeles County officials say mask mandates are possible by the end of the month if conditions continue to deteriorate.

Why are masks back on the agenda?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking when a county enters the high COVID-19 community level, the worst in a three-tier system.

Entering the high COVID-19 community level means that new weekly rates of hospitalizations, or hospital capacity, are being affected by coronavirus-positive patients to such an extent that the hospital systems may grow strained.

The CDC on Thursday placed 13 California counties in the high COVID-19 community level. It’s the first time since mid-March that any county in the state was in that level.

Nearly 1 in 6 Californians live in a county with a high COVID-19 community level. The affected counties are Santa Clara, Sonoma, Solano, Marin and Napa in the San Francisco Bay Area; Sacramento, Placer, Yolo, El Dorado in the Sacramento Valley area; and Monterey, Mendocino, San Benito and Del Norte elsewhere in Northern California.

What actions are being taken?

Alameda County issued a new mask mandate for most indoor public settings effective Friday, becoming the first California county to do so.

The county, home to Oakland, is the Bay Area’s second-most populous. Its mandate is the first issued in California since the winter Omicron surge faded

The order does not apply to K-12 school settings through the end of the school year, nor does it apply to Berkeley, which is in Alameda County but has its own public health department. Berkeley’s school system, however, has already implemented an indoor mask mandate.

“Rising COVID cases in Alameda County are now leading to more people being hospitalized, and today’s action reflects the seriousness of the moment,” county health officer Dr. Nicholas Moss said in a statement.

“We cannot ignore the data, and we can’t predict when this wave may end. Putting our masks back on gives us the best opportunity to limit the impact of a prolonged wave on our communities.”

Alameda County has one of California’s highest coronavirus transmission rates, reporting about 354 cases a week for every 100,000 residents for the past week. That figure has climbed 20% from mid-May. A rate of 100 cases a week or more for every 100,000 residents is considered high.

What are the details?

The Alameda County order will require masks to be worn at indoor businesses and workplaces, including offices, stores, theaters and conference centers, as well as restaurants and bars when not eating or drinking; on public transportation, including taxis and app-hailed rides; and at Oakland International Airport. Businesses and venue operators are required to post signage at all entrance points to communicate the mask requirement and “make reasonable efforts to ensure compliance in their setting,” the health order said.

The county won’t require masking in schools through the few remaining days in the school year. Masks need not be worn while working alone in a closed office or room, while swimming or showering at a gym or while obtaining a medical or cosmetic service involving the head or face for which mask removal is needed to perform the service.

Alameda County also is allowing masks to be optional for performers at indoor live events, such as the theater, opera, symphony, religious choirs and professional sports; at religious gatherings when necessary to perform rituals; and at indoor gyms and yoga studios by people who are “actively engaged in periods of heavy exertion,” are swimming or diving, or when engaged in sports where masks create a risk to health, like wrestling and judo.

Masks will be required in other youth settings, including child care, summer school and youth programs. Children younger than 2 must not mask because of the risk of suffocation.

What about other places?

The Berkeley school system has already issued a mask order for indoor K-12 classroom settings, as well as indoor graduations.

Other educational institutions in California have done the same, including UCLA and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Sacramento schools also announced new mask measures this week.

Where does Los Angeles County stand?

L.A. County could be poised to see a new universal indoor mask mandate lat`er this month if the upward trends continue.

“Our weekly case rate and the rate of increase in hospital admissions are of concern,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday. “If we continue on the current trajectory … we’re likely to move into the CDC high [COVID-19] community level within a few weeks towards the end of June, indicating increased stress on the healthcare system.”

According to CDC data issued Thursday, L.A. County observed 5.3 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents, an 18% increase from the previous week’s rate of 4.5. A rate of 10 or more would place L.A. County in a high COVID-19 community level.

Elsewhere in Southern California, Ventura County had a new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalization rate of 7.6; Santa Barbara County, 6.3; Orange County, 5.3; San Diego County, 4.9; and Riverside and San Bernardino counties, 2.9.

What are experts saying?

There is still not a clear sense of how bad the summer COVID-19 wave will be in California. Hospitalizations and deaths are still relatively modest.

Some observers say there’s no sign that California is nearing a peak, as the latest variant’s exceptional contagiousness is thought to be approaching that of measles. State modeling suggests, however, that the spread of COVID-19 is likely still increasing in Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and Greater Sacramento.

Even if hospitals don’t become burdened, there’s concern that climbing rates of transmission could keep people at home for a week or more, ruining plans for graduations, weddings and vacations and making it difficult for businesses to maintain adequate staffing.

Of all the COVID-19 restrictions that have been issued over the years, a mask order is among the least onerous to the public, said UC San Francisco epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert Dr. George Rutherford.

“If you’re going to try and stay in front of this and try and restrict the damage that’s going on, this strikes me as a fairly low-level ask, to have people wear a mask,” Rutherford said.

“We’re not talking about lockdowns, we’re not talking about mandatory vaccination, we’re not talking about mandatory testing programs. We’re just talking about wearing masks, which are highly effective, especially if both people are wearing masks. And it’s something we’re used to doing,” Rutherford said.

Does Aetna Exit Signal Deeper ACA Problems?

open_enrollment

San Diego Union-Tribune
The insurance giant Aetna will will stop offering Obamacare health plans in 11 of 15 states, citing $200 million in losses this year and more than $400 million since 2014. The announcement, made Monday night, was the latest blow to the Affordable Care Act, which had already suffered the departure of top-five insurers Humana and UnitedHealthcare and has seen double-digit premium increases for many of the carriers that will continue to sell through health exchanges such as Covered California next year. In general, carriers have said too many sick patients are the main reason they’re dropping out of exchanges or raising rates. With not enough young and healthy enrollees to balance out the claims ledgers, the three companies that are pulling out or down scaling said they have lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

So do these developments mark the beginning of the doomsday scenario for Obamacare? Before the law’s main insurance provision took effect in 2014, many experts predicted that guaranteeing coverage to all consumers regardless of their pre-existing medical conditions would eventually create “sick” insurance risk pools that could not cover their costs without large premium increases each year.

The experts disagree on whether the latest pullbacks and significant pricing hikes, floating in a sea of election-year politics, signal that the nation’s health insurance exchanges have reached a terrible tipping point or are simply seeking a new state of equilibrium.

Gary Claxton, director of the nonprofit research group Health Care Marketplace Project at Kaiser Family Foundation, takes a middle position. He said the currently available facts can be interpreted either way, and that means Obamacare’s upcoming open-enrollment period — its fourth annual — is critical. It will all come down to whether the number of enrollees in Obamacare plans continues to grow, he said. “We won’t know until the next open enrollment, are we still moving forward or are we stalled or moving backward?” Claxton said. ” If the market grows, then I think many insurers will find a way to be part of it… The next couple of months are a moment of truth.”

Just how bad the problem is depends on who you ask. UnitedHealthcare said in April that it expects to lose $650 million this year because the cost of its Obamacare policies has exceeded revenue generated from premiums. Then late Monday brought Aetna’s announcement of its deficits. While its book of business includes insurance plans sold outside of Obamacare exchanges as well, all plans on the individual market (not employer-based policies) have been affected by the Affordable Care Act’s edict to take all comers regardless of their health status.

This picture of unprofitability from some of the nation’s largest insurers contrasts with an announcement last week from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that said per-member claims were flat from 2014 to 2015 for exchange enrollees, compared with a 3 percent increase for the broader health insurance market.

The federal government gets its data from the Affordable Care Act’s reinsurance and risk adjustment programs, which have collected broad information on all claims in order to reimburse programs that experienced higher-than-average patient expenses. The reinsurance program will go away next year and many organizations, including Covered California, have said insurers are announcing double-digit premium increases for next year to compensate for this change. Neither the insurance companies nor CMS has released full data sets on Obamacare claims, making it difficult for analysts to reconcile these seemingly contrasting pictures about the financial state of health exchanges.

Brian Blase, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a conservative think tank located at George Mason University in Virginia, said he believes insurers’ reported losses and their decisions to largely leave the exchanges have been brewing since 2014, the first year exchange policies took full effect. A recent analysis of 174 health plans operating in 2014 showed that premiums would have had to be 24 percent higher than they were in 2014 to cover costs, but that the disparity was erased by the government’s reinsurance program, according to the Mercatus study.

When asked why the recent CMS study indicates a very different scenario, Blase was blunt. “I think they did some gymnastics on how they counted or discounted claims. It is inconsistent with everything else I’ve seen and, frankly, I think that their analysis is inaccurate,” Blase said. He said the current negative pattern will likely deepen, eventually leading to repeal or significant modification of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance regulations. “You’re going to have rising premiums and lower choice. I think the political pressure next year to make changes will be significant,” Blase said. But others such as Sara Collins, vice president for health care coverage and access at The Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that supports independent research on health care practice and policy, don’t see dire signs from the latest insurance developments. She noted that major carriers including Blue Cross, Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente are not pulling out of exchanges. There is evidence, Collins added, that insurance risk pools tend to be healthier when they’re in larger states such as California. Long-term sustainability, especially where premiums are concerns, appears to be a function of size, which in turn lures multiple carriers who compete with each other for business. Collins said this means the estimated 1,000 U.S. counties with only one insurance carrier are likely to see more significant upward pressure on premiums in coming years, a situation that does, as Blase asserts, seem to suggest the federal government needing to step in. Ideas for intervention range from creating a “public option” similar to Medicare or special high-risk insurance pools to subsidize insurance to cover people with the most expensive medical needs.

Overall, though, Collins said the current information appears to indicate that Obamacare markets are maturing rather than dying. “It’s not surprising that we’re seeing some shake-up in the marketplace this year. There are going to be winners and losers like any competitive market you can think of. Some will compete and gain market share, others won’t,” she said. Additional information on the changes the Affordable Care Act has wrought in California will be forthcoming. The Kaiser Family Foundation is scheduled to release the fourth and final installment of its California health survey on Friday. The survey has tracked the effects of the law across the state since summer 2013. (c)2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune atwww.sandiegouniontribune.com.

Experts: Incentives are still important to wellness plans

The Affordable Care Act increased an employer’s ability to use incentives to drive wellness program participation, but implementing them has been tricky due to recent allegations that some plans may discriminate against employees, experts said. Aon Hewitt senior vice president Stephanie Pronk said the legal issues will make employers more cautious, but there have not been indications that companies are going to stop using them. “They might think differently about the dollar amount and what they’re asking people to do, but we haven’t [seen] movement away from it,” she said. BenefitsPro.com (4/7)

Experts float off-season enrollment for voluntary benefits

Some employment insurance experts are recommending moving enrollment for voluntary benefits to a time other than open enrollment periods, when employees are focused on health insurance decisions. Understanding the value of ancillary benefits can be challenging for employees, say experts, but because the products are more important than ever to a comprehensive financial protection strategy, benefits professionals need to ensure employees get the resources they need. Employee Benefit Adviser (3/17)

Experts advise consumers to shop before renewing health plans

Health insurance plans purchased through the federally run Affordable Care Act exchange will be renewed automatically, but subscribers should at least ensure their financial and other information is up-to-date. Consumer advocates and other experts also advise comparison shopping. The New York Times (tiered subscription model) (10/15

Experts Predict A Big Boost in Access to Mental Health Drugs

Doctors and managed care organizations anticipate increased demand for drugs that treat major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, according to a survey by Decision Resources Group. The demand for these drugs will rise thanks to Medicaid expansion in 24 states and affordable coverage through the exchanges. Doctors expect to see 30% more patients with these conditions. Managed care organizations say that drug formularies in the exchanges are the same or compare favorably to those of traditional group health plans. While there are many generic drugs to treat these behavioral health conditions, managed-care organizations offer favorable tier placement to brands they believe offer superior efficacy, safety, and tolerability. Branded behavioral drugs, such as Brintellix, Saphris, and Fanapt are excluded less often from exchange plans than from commercial group plans. Abilify will launch generically in 2015, which is expected to increase utilization, especially in Medicaid plans and in managed-care plans that offer higher payments for physicians with high generic prescribing rates. Narrow provider networks in the exchanges are expected to drive many patients to visit primary care doctors for  behavioral conditions. Compared to psychiatrists, these generalists are not as familiar with the newer branded drugs, and they welcome information about pharmaceutical companies’ patient assist programs. Doctors overwhelmingly support patient assistant programs. They say that patients will still need drug coupons when they face high deductibles or formulary exclusions through an exchange plan. For more information visit www.DecisionResourcesGroup.com.

Annuities have become a key tool for meeting LTC costs, expert says

Hybrid products involving annuities and life insurance are increasingly emerging to help cover the costs of long-term care, and advisers need to keep up with the latest developments, said Newman Long Term Care founder Deb Newman, former chair of the LIFE Foundation board of directors. One such product converts life insurance to an annuity with long-term-care insurance, she noted. Financial Advisor online (1/17)

Eyeing 2014 landscape, experts predict rising demand for optional benefits

Demand will rise for voluntary insurance plans, such as accident and critical illness coverage, writes LifeHealthPro’s Allison Bell in a survey of what the health benefits industry might expect in 2014. Many people with chronic conditions will get good health coverage for the first time, contractors who built faulty exchanges will find themselves in court and policymakers will begin considering changes to the Affordable Care Act, Bell writes. Consumers are unlikely to investigate new dental or vision coverage, but Bell says that does not mean they are uninterested; she suggests brokers would do well to contact clients and walk them through applications. National Underwriter Life & Health (12/27)

Experts predict more private exchanges, more regulations in 2014

As employers with 50 or more full-time employees prepare for the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to take effect in 2015, more privately run insurance exchanges will offer benefits, and consumers will become more cost-conscious, predicts Alan Cohen, chief strategy officer for private exchange firm Liazon. Transparency around health care costs will improve, says Ceci Connolly, managing director of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Research Institute. The Obama administration is likely to extend the March 31 deadline for getting insurance or paying a tax penalty, and it will promulgate more rules implementing the ACA, says Catamaran’s Ellen Nelson. USA Today (1/1)

Wellness experts say incentives are big part of company plans

Industry experts said companies have quickly caught on to the benefits of using employee incentives and penalties to drive wellness program participation. Aon Hewitt medical director Dr. Michael Cryer said he never expected the percentage of companies linking biometric outcomes to incentives would increase from 4% to 25% in one year. Tom Billet of Towers Watson said companies also are using financial incentives to get more people engaged in wellness programs. Reuters (10/10)

Last Updated 08/10/2022

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