Congress has Alpena-area residents’ health in their hands

This column originally appeared in The Alpena News on May 27, 2021

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of thousands of our fellow Michiganders, including many people we have all directly known, worked with, and cared about.

And, on top of the very real physical health risks, the pandemic has also harmed our economy and turned our workplaces and our homes upside down, impacting people’s mental and fiscal health, as well.

Now, let’s look back on the last year-plus that we all have endured together. Imagine if COVID-19 testing and vaccinations required health insurance or out-of-pocket costs. How much worse would things be right now? How much dimmer would the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel feel?

As we have all faced a health crisis unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetime, the pandemic has reemphasized the importance of public health and of public health insurance options. And it is important that policies and investments to provide relief and economic recovery from the pandemic build on and expand those existing health services that have been so essential for people over the past year.

First, let’s see where we were prior to the pandemic.

While the percentages of residents without health insurance coverage are relatively low for Northeast Michigan, health care access and affordability still is a greater challenge locally than in some nearby counties.

Census data for 2019 shows that, for Michigan as a whole, 6% of residents did not have health insurance. Alpena County and Alcona County both boasted better rates than the state, with only 5% of all residents not having health insurance.

However, in Presque Isle County, 7% of residents were without health coverage in 2019, and 8% of Montmorency County residents did not have health care in 2019.

And, while we don’t know the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on health coverage, we do have some data points and reports that have provided some important context and insight.

Over the summer, research from the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 5 million essential and frontline workers get health coverage through Medicaid nationwide. The Center’s piece estimates that around 180,400 essential/frontline workers in Michigan are enrolled in Medicaid, and that 38% of essential/frontline workers with lower incomes in the state are enrolled in Medicaid.

And, last month, enrollment in the Healthy Michigan Plan, the state’s Medicaid expansion program to offer health insurance coverage to residents with lower incomes, topped 900,000. That is up significantly from just under 682,000 in late March 2020.

It’s clear that Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act are more important than ever as we weather this crisis. And President Joe Biden’s federal American Rescue Plan Act, which passed in March, and his American Families Plan proposed last month, recognize that and seek to improve the effectiveness of those health programs.

Arguably the biggest improvement in health care affordability since the Affordable Care Act, the American Rescue Plan provided two years of lower health insurance premiums for those who buy coverage on their own, saving families an average of $50 per person per month. The proposed American Families Plan would make those premium reductions permanent, which would result in roughly 9 million people saving hundreds of dollars per year on their premiums, and 4 million uninsured people gaining coverage.

The American Families Plan also seeks to reduce people’s marketplace deductibles and other cost-sharing.

High cost-sharing can affect people’s decision about whether to enroll in a plan, and out-of-pocket costs can deter people from going to the doctor or cause them to put off getting care they need.

But all of the benefits of the American Families Plan are currently just proposals.

When Congress works to craft those ideas into legislation and ultimately pass them into laws, they must make sure that health care is part of the recovery package.

If we are going to recover from this pandemic, it’s up to Congress to follow up on President Biden’s ambitious plans and make those historic investments in reducing health care costs for all Americans, all Michiganders, and all Northeast Michigan residents.


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