Help available to meet health insurance deadline

Wes Luckey and Carol Moser

Mid-Columbia Voices

Most Americans understand the need for health insurance and desire to have coverage. After all, health care in this country is very expensive. A routine inpatient surgical procedure can cost as much as a new car. But the high cost of health care coverage, and the fact that having health insurance has been optional, have left many people uninsured. Millions are not offered health coverage through a job, and eligibility gaps for public insurance coverage have left millions more without an affordable option.

One of the main goals of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is to assist almost 32 million Americans gain access to quality, affordable health insurance. The ACA expands the affordability, quality and availability of private and public insurance through a variety of means, including premium subsidies, online insurance exchanges, the expansion of Medicaid, In-Person Assister programs and much more.

The ACA isn't meant to regulate your health care. It's meant to regulate health insurance and some of the worst practices of the health care industry.

About 40,000 thousand residents of Benton and Franklin counties lack health insurance. Franklin County has the second highest percentage of uninsured of any county in Washington.

And access to adequate health insurance has been shown to be one of the most significant factors to improving health outcomes for people. Lack of health insurance is tied to lower quality of life; increased sickness, injury and death; and higher financial burdens. Medical bills cause more bankruptcies than any other debts. More than 2 million Americans claim bankruptcy each year because of unpaid medical bills.

Contrast this with Massachusetts. After Gov. Mitt Romney's 2006 implementation of health care reform in that state, residents there experienced an improvement to their credit scores, a reduction in their debt and even a 20 percent reduction in the number of personal bankruptcies, a new study finds. This could bode well for the ACA's affect on the financial well-being of American households.

In our state, almost 1 million residents were uninsured in 2011 -- about 1 in every 7 people, and another 1.2 million people were underinsured (facing high out-of-pocket costs).

Uncompensated care ballooned to nearly $1 billion per year, adding costs of more than $1,000 annually for each insured family. The majority of this uncompensated care came from people seeking health care in an emergency department setting.

Such care is not only expensive, it is also sub-optimal given the types of health conditions we face today. Increasingly, people are experiencing more chronic diseases, such diabetes or heart disease.

These conditions require that health care be delivered in a more coordinated way. The emergency room will not provide the ongoing insulin needs of a young boy with diabetes, nor will it cover the ongoing chemotherapy required of a woman who has breast cancer.

And it will not provide routine preventive care and wellness and counseling services in a way that can prevent disease from happening in the first place. Getting such care is just not feasible without some sort of health coverage.

Since October of last year, more than 760,000 residents have enrolled in the newly formed exchange here in Washington.

Many have gone online, using the Washington Healthplanfinder web portal, to enroll in Washington Apple Health (Medicaid) or in a Qualified Health Plan offered bys a private insurance company. In Benton and Franklin counties, more than 7,800 residents have enrolled in Washington Apple Health alone.

While Washington Apple Health can be applied for throughout the year, the deadline for enrollment onto the Exchange for a qualified health plan is today.

There are several locations throughout Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties at which to receive in-person assistance.

You can also enroll online at www.wahealthplanfinder.org. For a list of places for in-person assistance, call Community Action Connections at 545-4042.

-- Carol Moser is the executive director of the Benton-Franklin Community Health Alliance. Wes Luckey is director the state Health Benefit Exchange Navigator In-Person Assister Program for Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.