Lifestyle

Uninsured in Kent getting health care coverage, but more work needs to be done | Guest op

By Diana Olsen
for the Kent Reporter

Last fall this newspaper reported that one in four people in Kent were uninsured. Health care providers, public health and social services agencies set a lofty goal to enroll Kent's uninsured people in new health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

I'm proud to say that with the efforts of local and state leaders, we are well on our way to meeting that goal. Our friends and neighbors are finally feeling the relief that health care coverage can bring and feeling a sense of health and financial security that they never had before.

Last year Washington State continued to show leadership in the nation by voting to expand Medicaid and giving low-income people in our communities access to health care. After just five months, more than 38,000 newly eligible low-income people in King County and approximately 3,800 in Kent have enrolled in Washington Apple Health (our state's Medicaid program). That means more than 60 percent of Kent's uninsured who were eligible for Medicaid are now covered.

Beyond the numbers, Medicaid is changing people's lives. It's not unusual to hear stories like Mark's: he struggled with a disability but didn't qualify for assistance. On the brink of losing everything, he was relieved to find that he now qualifies for Medicaid and can access the basic health care he needs.

It's not easy to reach people who have historically not had health care coverage and often have instability in their lives. Many people don't even know they are eligible. That's why Community Health Centers in Washington are calling on legislators to fund an outreach campaign when the Exchange marketing ends in March, to educate people that they can enroll in Medicaid at any time. Funding this campaign throughout 2014 will help Washington State achieve its high enrollment projections, creating state budget savings.

HealthPoint and other health centers are also working with legislators to ensure that new Medicaid enrollees can choose their health plan when they enroll. Currently they are auto-assigned— they have no choice. If a patient is assigned to a plan that doesn't contract with their current doctor, it creates more than just an inconvenience for someone with serious medical conditions. Changing plans also wastes valuable and already scarce resources for enrollees, providers, health plans and the Health Care Authority. Higher-income individuals enrolling in coverage on the Exchange can choose a plan. Why not those enrolling in Medicaid?

As we celebrate and work toward a day where all Washingtonians have access to affordable quality health care, we know that these newly achieved gains are fragile. Despite continued tight state budgets, we can't turn our backs on this progress. We must push on to preserve critical health care safety net programs that are protecting lives and saving the state money, like Medicaid, Maternity Support Services and interpreter services.

It is my hope that next fall a Kent Reporter headline will read, "Kent's Uninsured Rate Dropped to Zero." We can make that a reality with continued hard work.

Diana Olsen is a resident of Kent and works at HealthPoint, a nonprofit Community Health Center providing primary medical and basic dental care to more than 70,000 people each year, at 17 clinics throughout King County, including Kent. For more information, visit www.healthpointchc.org.

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