Covered California, new state ACA exchange, announces more than 28,000 enrollees in first week

Covered California, the state’s new insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act, fielded 43,616 applications in its first week, with 28,699 people determined eligible for insurance, according to numbers the agency announced Tuesday.

The website, which has had some struggles with long wait times and glitches but has undergone periods of maintenance that allowed it to run smoother, received 987,440 unique visits, and the agency also had 59,003 calls. Customer service operators were flooded with calls within the first few days, with wait times exceeding 30 minutes.The average wait time for the first week was 15 minutes.

“We’ve started strong,” Executive Director Peter Lee said in a statement. “The amount of interest and number of applications we’ve received in the first week underscores the demand among Californians for quality, affordable health care.”

The open enrollment period for 2014 Covered California insurance kicked off Oct. 1 and will end March 31.

In Riverside County the agency is offering plans through Anthem, Blue Shield, Health Net, Kaiser Permanente and Molina Healthcare. They will all include core ACA-mandated benefits that had previously been ignored in many plans such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, prescription drugs and maternity care, as well as offering coverage regardless of preexisting conditions. Presented in tiers ranging from platinum to bronze, the coverage will use a standardized-benefits system that will set out-of-pocket costs.

Covered California is also offering subsidies for the plans through federal funding for those living between 138 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level, $11,490 for an individual. About 2.6 million Californians are eligible for subsidies, including 341,000 in Riverside-San Bernardino county region.

The agency hopes to bring in some of the estimated 5.3 million uninsured Californians through the changes. Prior to the exchange’s open, it had announced that it hoped to enroll between 487,000 and 696,000 subsidy-eligible people by the end of the first enrollment period.

“It’s just the beginning, but these numbers are truly exciting and encouraging,” Lee added.

In the Coachella Valley Desert Healthcare District and the California Endowment have formed a partnership and committed $500,000 and up to $650,000 on ACA insurance education and enrollment, in conjunction with the efforts of local organizations and federally qualified health centers.

People can apply for the insurance plans at apply.coveredca.com, which includes a built-in application for the ACA expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s welfare program for the low-income, for those living under 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Health care, health costs biggest retirement fears

Health problems and its costs are now the biggest retirement-related fears for Americans, according to a new retirement study by Merrill Lynch in partnership with Age Wave.

The results were gathered from a national survey of more than 6,300 people age 45 and older with questions on finances, medical care, home and community and more.

Serious health problems were named the biggest worry by 72 percent of respondents, followed by not being a burden on the family, running out of money to live comfortably, being lonely, not having a purpose, and having nothing to leave behind to family in their will.

The survey also found that 57 percent of retirees had retired earlier than they had expected. The primary reason for early retirement was not because of financial comfort, but instead, health problems.

Health care costs were ranked as the top financial worry, even more so among those with a higher income. Of those who make more than $250,000, 52 percent named health care expenses. Though it was still the biggest retirement concern for those who made less than that, 37 percent of them listed it as their top concern.

Only one in nine pre-retirees were “completely confident” in their ability to fund their retirement health care.

Retirees and pre-retirees over the age of 45 are worried about the future of government programs like Medicare, as well as the declining number of large companies offering health benefits to retirees, according to the Merrill Lynch report outlining the study.

Respondents put the most weight on health care advice, with 75 percent saying that, aside from “core financial advice,” it would be most valuable.

About 60 percent of the Coachella Valley’s residents fall into this age bracket of 45, with the largest group aged 65 or older, the 2010 Health Assessment Resource Center survey showed.

Do you worry about health problems or health care expenses after retirement? What are your thoughts on the survey results? Email me at Victoria.pelham@thedesertsun.com.

Teachers protest outside Desert Sands negotiations

While negotiators met inside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday, a small group of teachers gathered outside to protest a stalemate between the union and the district.

More than 200 teachers and supporters, each holding protest signs, lined the road outside the district office, said Mona Davidson, president of the Desert Sands Teachers Association. The union encouraged teachers to show their support outside the office after the school day was over, Davidson explained.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Here is what each protest sign said:

Respect teachers

Students first

Settle now!

Despite the signs, the district that the negotiation stalemate has nothing to do with a lack of respect.

During a previous interview, Sherry Johnstone, assistant superintendent for personnel, said the district is struggling through some of “the most difficult economic times any of us have ever seen.” Education funding has dropped year after year, she said.

“DSTA has called into question DSUSD’s ‘priorities,” Johnston wrote in an e-mail. “To be clear, students are first always, with their safety and education at the very top of the list.  DSUSD teachers are the best in the world!  We hold them in high regard.  We respect them, their professionalism and dedication to our children and families.”

The protest came on the same day that The Desert Sun published a front-page story about how the prolonged negotiations are impacting at least one local high school. In response to the stalemate, a majority of the teachers at Palm Desert High School have agreed to work to contract, which means to only perform the duties they are contractually obligated to do, and to boycott the school’s graduation. Teachers normally help supervise students during graduation.

The union negotiations have reached a stalemate due to a dispute over how much money the district will pay each teacher in response to the passage of Proposition 30, which California voters passed last year to stabilize education funding. Since the passage of the proposition, the district has offered to increase compensation by about $600 for each the 1,200 teachers in the union. The union wants that figure to increase to $1,000 per teacher.

 

New hire at CVUSD prompts nepotism allegation

The Coachella Valley Unified School District has hired the wife of the school board president as a speech pathologist, prompting accusations of nepotism from a small group.

Kay Kamper, the wife of board president Lowell Kamper, will start work as a speech and language pathologist working at the district office in August.

The board approved her hiring on Thursday night. There was no discussion, and the vote was five to one. Board member Juanita Duarte was the only dissenting vote. The board president abstained from the vote to hire his wife.

This decision drew criticism earlier in the meeting. Gloria Gomez Maldonado, and Indio resident with nieces and nephews in the school district, said the sitting board members were no better than their predecessors, who were plagued by scandal and nepotism allegations.

“So here is the million dollar question to all you very highly highly educated (officials,) what’s the difference between your nepotism and what you accused the other administration of?” Maldonado shouted at the board.

Board members did not respond to her criticism during the meeting.

The hiring of Kay Kamper is also listed among the concerns of a group of recall proponents, who served four board members – including Lowell Kamper – with a notice of intent to recall during the Wednesday board meeting.

Public records from Imperial County confirm that Lowell and Kay Kamper are husband and wife.

Water park to be built in ‘Palm Springs Resort City’ in Malaysia

It’s interesting to drive around the desert and see developments named after famous places. In Rancho Mirage, if you travel west on Gerald Ford Drive past Versailles — not the renowned royal palace outside of Paris, but a gated community — you will soon pass the entrance to La Toscana, named after the picturesque region in Italy known to Americans as Tuscany.

Has Palm Springs inspired any developments around the world?

Indeed.

I came across this headline this morning: “RM600mil Splash Park to be built on seafront land within Palm Springs.” RM is an abbreviation for the Malaysian ringgit, the Asian country’s official currency. The water park will be constructed in “Palm Springs Resort City,” which is located more than one hour south of capital Kuala Lumpur in the beachfront resort city of Port Dickson. I bet this might be the first time “Palm Springs” and “seafront land” have appeared in same headline together.

There’s more than just a water park coming to “Palm Springs,” according to the article: “Apart from Splash Park, other exciting development components will include an international destination-based spa retreat village, international hotels and serviced residences, a wellness zone, a marina and duty-free shops.”

A marina in Palm Springs? That’s a first, I’m sure.

A ‘cleanup’ bill aims to specify annual trail closing

The state Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee approved a bill authored by state Assemblyman Brian Nestande on Tuesday that is to clear up one detail about the annual closing of the popular Bump and Grind Trail, specifying that the trail will be closed to hikers for three months each year from February through April.

Nestande said the bill, AB 1097, is intended to be a “cleanup” measure after a bill approved last year didn’t specify the three months that the trail would be closed.

Heated debates have arisen about the impacts of hiking on populations of Peninsular bighorn sheep, including the controversy during the past two years over the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s installation of a gate blocking off part of the trail. Hikers have argued the agency didn’t present data proving impacts on sheep populations to back its decision.

Nestande (R-Palm Desert) said the bill simply clears up the annual closure to sidestep potential troubles.

“That wasn’t specified in the bill. So now this, to avoid having to go through an environmental impact report, which costs a lot of money, which could open up to lawsuits on either side of the debate here, we just decided to write it in law so there’s no more delay in opening the trail,” Nestande said.

Study: California’s state and local government debt likely tops $1 trillion

A study out Tuesday estimates that California’s state and local governments are on the hook for as much as $1.1 trillion in debt, an amount that equates to more than $80,000 for every California household.

The study from the California Public Policy Center put the total government debt in California at between $848 billion and $1.1 trillion. The amount includes money owed by cities, counties, school districts, the state and other government bodies, including unfunded liabilities for public employee retiree pensions and heath care.

CPPC is a non-partisan, southern California think tank that devotes much of its research to public employees and unions, often to the ire of the unions and liberal groups.

In Riverside County alone, a separate report making news this week put the county’s unfunded pension liabilities at more than $1 billion.

For more on Riverside County’s pension gap, including a database of the county’s retiree pension obligations, check out this iSun investigation.

LA schools debate: a full belly or a full class period?

What’s more important – a full belly or a full class period?

That’s the debate in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where education leaders are considering cutting a classroom breakfast program – one year after the program began – due to opposition from the teachers union.

The program sets aside 10 minutes at the beginning of the day for kids to eat in their classrooms. As a result, the number of kids eating a free or reduced-price breakfast rose from 29 percent to 89 percent, increasing student focus while reducing tardiness, according to a recent story by Southern California Public Radio.

Read or listen to the SCPR story here.

Although the program appears to be successful, it has been opposed by the teachers union, which argues that it eats up too much class time. The program also raises sanitation issues, the union argues.

You can listen to a discussion about the debate, including speakers on both sides of the program, by visiting the SCPR website.

The Desert Sun collects 11 California journalism awards

The Desert Sun has had an extra special day today.

We as a news organization do what we do, journalistically, for the readers. That includes all of the news we break and all of the investigative work we dig into on a regular basis.

But we still appreciate recognition from our peers when they also note our work when placed side by side with other great examples of solid journalism.

On Saturday, Desert Sun Executive Editor Greg Burton took a trip to Los Angeles to help honor all of the great work news organizations in California tackled and produced in 2012. The following column from Greg talks about that work and the awards The Desert Sun and MyDesert.com brought home: 

The Desert Sun collects 11 journalim awards from CNPA

By Greg Burton, Desert Sun Executive Editor

More than a year ago, we refocused our newsroom on storytelling, investigative journalism, digital innovation and community engagement.

We invested in watchdog reporting, creating an eight-person iSun team that is producing revelatory work on energy and the environment, health and education, politics and public corruption. Our team of investigative reporters is comparable in size to newsrooms much larger than ours.

We hired more reporters. We hired more digital producers. We partnered with California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

We retooled community reporting so that we didn’t reaffirm neighborhood news, we discovered it.

We put a premium on deep reporting, regardless of subject: boxing, golf, modern design, music, hotels, real estate, pollution, public pensions and taxes.

We reinvented our approach, launching mobile apps for music, mycoachella.com, and for high schools, digitalnatives.net, and for our main news site, mydesert.com.

Our greatest return on investment is a strengthened connection to readers in the Coachella Valley. We earn this by shining a light on mistakes and misappropriations, by injecting reason into public discourse, by celebrating good people and great feats.

Today, I want to recognize a few of the people who work for your newspaper. On Saturday, The Desert Sun took home an unprecedented, for us, nine first- and two second-place trophies in the annual California Newspaper Publishers Association journalism contest. Our staff earned honorable mention in two other categories, for 13 total awards.

Nearly every aspect of our work received praise: Digital, investigations, narrative writing, feature storytelling, special sections, coverage of the environment, government, business, education, sports.

No newspaper in the state won more first places than The Desert Sun except for the LA Times.

During lunch at a Sheraton in Universal City, The Desert Sun collected nine first-place awards for:

1. Best Investigative Reporting: Marcel Honoré’s package of stories on toxic pollution in Mecca

2. Sports Coverage: For the day-to-day excellence of The Desert Sun’s Sports section, a staff award with a nod to sports editor Matt Solinsky and assistant sports editor Shad Powers

3. Coverage of Business, Financial or Economic News: Mike Perrault’s story on vacant commercial office space in the Coachella Valley

4. Best Local Government Coverage: Erica Felci and Rebecca Walsh’s investigation of Riverside County’s $1,144,000,000 pension gap

5. Best Writing: Drew Schmenner’s captivating retelling of the death of two hikers at Joshua Tree National Park

6. Coverage of Environment: Our iSun team’s special report on the Salton Sea’s evaporating hope

7. Best Sports Story: Drew Schmenner’s package on the history of boxing in the Coachella Valley

8. Best Feature Story: Bruce Fessier’s examination of the rebirth of Sunnylands

9. Coverage of Education: Michelle Mitchell’s special report on the digital divide at schools in southeastern Riverside County

And second-place awards for:

Best Website: MyDesert.com

Special Sports Section: Our sports team’s coverage of the Humana Challenge

Also this week, in New York City, our mobile app program for schools was recognized by the International News Media Association.

Judges praised DigitalNatives.com and our collaboration with Cathedral City, Palm Desert and La Quinta high schools to deliver student-created content via mobile apps. Our innovative approach shared the spotlight with two programs from Brazil.

We’re in talks to deliver this program to every high school — so if you care about students in Palm Springs, Indio, Coachella, Rancho Mirage, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells and elsewhere in the valley, ask your principal to give me a call.

Finally, our sports team earned distinction in three categories from the Associated Press Sports Editors. We received honorable mention for the overall excellence of our Sunday Sports section and Humana golf tournament special section.

Nobody, though, was better than Leighton Ginn, who was named the best beat reporter among peer sports writers working anywhere in America.

APSE singled out Leighton’s coverage of Timothy Bradley and boxing in the Coachella Valley.

Leighton’s a knockout winner.

Greg Burton is executive editor of The Desert Sun and mydesert.com. Email him at Greg.Burton@thedesertsun.com and follow him on Twitter @gburton

Mapping communities hit hardest by pollution across California

In an effort to pinpoint communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollution, state officials have developed a new tool that considers multiple pollution types as well as socioeconomic indicators such as poverty and rates of asthma.

The tool, developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, is called CalEnviroScreen. An interactive map shows the highest ranking zip codes, and data can be found by clicking on the shaded regions.

The zip code of Coachella, 92236, pops up among the top 10 percent of highest scoring zip codes, placed in that category by relatively high levels of ozone, pesticides and “groundwater threats,” among other factors.

“The tool is designed to give a comprehensive look,” said Colleen Flannery, a spokeswoman for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. She said the tool will be used to identify communities that are most affected by pollution and most in need of assistance.