Affordable Care Act protecting health, saving money in Whatcom County

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 11, 2014 

If you've been following the news from Washington D.C. the last several months, you might think that the Affordable Care Act has been a failure. As the executive director of Interfaith Community Health Center, with facilities in Bellingham, Ferndale and Point Roberts, I can vouch that the opposite is true locally: the Affordable Care is working well in Whatcom County. The vision of increased health coverage is now a reality, bringing welcome security to our friends and neighbors.

Whatcom County is one of Washington State's best performers on enrollment in new health care coverage. Expecting a rush of people eager to enroll in coverage, we hired three people to assist our existing enrollment staff of two. Overwhelmed, we hired three more, and our staff of eight is busy around the clock. The results are tangible. In December 2013, 18 percent of our medical visits were with uninsured patients. In the first two weeks of January, after new coverage had kicked in, that dropped to 10 percent, and we expect this trend to continue.

That means that people suffering from high blood pressure can get the regular check-ups they need to keep it under control. It means that people don't have to put off care for an ear infection or toothache, trading a visit to the emergency room when the infections worsen, for a primary care provider appointment instead - the less expensive route that brings relief to patients sooner.

In just five months, more than 5,000 newly eligible low-income people in Whatcom County have enrolled in Medicaid, also known as Washington Apple Health. This success is the result of a community collaboration, led by the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement. Statewide efforts have been successful as well, with more than 130,000 enrollees. Before the Affordable Care Act, these individuals had no options for health care.

One new enrollee is a veteran who served in Iraq who continues to serve by volunteering at Growing Veterans. His Veterans Affairs medical plan does not include coverage for prescriptions, behavioral health or routine physicals. Our enrollment team helped him obtain this coverage, and he has since received the physical examination and vaccinations necessary to join the Peace Corps.

Because of the Affordable Care Act, Interfaith is now able to re-invest resources that normally underwrite our care for people without insurance into expanding our adult dental program - a much-needed service in our area. We are adding dentists and hygiene staff, and planning a new adult dental clinic.

As we celebrate this hard-earned success, we know that the health security people are gaining is fragile. Despite continued tight state budgets, we must preserve critical health care safety net programs that are protecting lives and saving the state money, including Medicaid, Maternity Support Services and interpreter services.

We are also calling on our state leaders for some fine tuning and minor investments to improve upon health coverage for low-income and special populations. One of those investments is a no-brainer: allowing Medicaid enrollees to choose their health plan, as higher-income individuals enrolling in coverage on the Washington Health Benefit Exchange are already able to do. Currently, Medicaid enrollees are auto-assigned. If a patient's assigned plan doesn't contract with her current provider, she will see a disruption in care as she works on changing plans.

Olympia also needs to fund outreach efforts to continue enrolling uninsured adults in Medicaid throughout 2014, so it can achieve its high enrollment projections, which create state budget savings. This outreach requires a new Medicaid-tailored message targeting this population that historically has not had coverage options, to overcome any confusion or challenges experienced with this complex rollout.

I'm so proud that Washington State and Whatcom County have truly embraced the promise of the Affordable Care Act and have worked tirelessly to see it to fruition. Let's keep it up and secure it for the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Desmond Skubi is the executive director of Interfaith Community Health Center, which provides affordable primary care. Its clinics in Bellingham, Ferndale and Point Roberts provide preventive medical, dental, behavioral health and pharmacy services for children and adults to more than 14,000 Whatcom County residents each year. For information online, go to interfaithchc.org.

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