December 14, 2013

FROM THE STATE HOUSE: Obamacare a good first step toward affordable health insurance

Sen. Colleen Lachowicz

I am not a politician. I’m a social worker. I decided to run for office for three reasons — three children I know who lost their moms because of a lack of health insurance. Jamie, Tracy and Zoe (not their real names) don’t have mothers because we as a society hadn’t done enough to increase access to affordable health insurance.

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is a good first step.

Under the Affordable Care Act, 32 million Americans will finally get health care. The millions of us who have a pre-existing condition, which could be anything from asthma to experiencing domestic violence, can no longer be denied care, and young adults can stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until they are 26.

The Affordable Care Act also includes some changes to the way insurance companies do business. They now have to spend 80 percent of the money they receive from premiums on health care, instead of lining the pockets of their CEOs, and they can’t cancel our insurance if we make an honest mistake on our application.

We can all agree we don’t want to give insurance companies carte blanche to raise their rates, so the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to publicly justify a rate increase of 10 percent or more before raising our premiums.

But the ACA doesn’t go far enough. To finish the job, we need to accept the federal government’s deal to provide health insurance to nearly 70,000 Mainers through an expansion of the Medicaid program, known in Maine as MaineCare.

Under this deal, the federal government has agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost for covering all newly eligible people for the first three years, and then gradually ratchet down to no less than 90 percent of the cost from 2020 onward.

By accepting this offer, Maine would save $690 million over the next 10 years and receive an additional $250 million into our economy. Furthermore, states that don’t accept this federal deal are projected to lose $8.4 billion in federal funding and spend an additional $1 billion on so-called charity care costs.

Opponents argue that we can’t trust the federal government to honor this deal, and that the bungled roll out of the Affordable Care Act website proves that.

But I don’t buy it.

For one thing, the federal government has always lived up to its Medicaid obligations. Even at the height of the Great Recession, the federal government made sure Medicaid was funded.

Secondly, while the rollout of the healthcare.gov website has been a mess, the product available on the websites is good. Thousands of people have signed up for health care, and for the first time, are able to get good coverage for their families at an affordable price.

In less than an hour, Brenda Nasberg-Jepson of Aroostook County signed up for health insurance, and her family will save $4,000 per year with health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Saying affordable health care is bad because of a glitchy website is like saying we should go back to horses and buggies every time we have to take our car to the mechanic.

Unfortunately, even with the subsidies available to purchase health insurance, the plans available are still too expensive for some people.

They are stuck in a gap: They don’t receive health insurance from their employer, but they don’t make enough to afford it on their own.

These are some of the 70,000 people who would be helped by expanding access to health care.

It will help people like my friend Alyra who has Type I diabetes. She doesn’t receive health insurance through her work, and she can’t afford to buy a new insulin pump, so she is holding her old one together with clear nail polish. If we take this deal, she will be able to get health insurance, and a new insulin pump.

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