The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Features GBPI Op-ed: Law vital to health system

As posted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Timothy Sweeney

Last week’s Supreme Court arguments over the Affordable Care Act obscured a key fact: People in Georgia and nationwide are already getting better care under the law. Millions more will benefit in years to come if it stands.

If it doesn’t, we’ll be right back where we started, trying to figure out how to care for Georgians without insurance and how to rein in soaring medical costs. We’ll all be poorer for that.

When health reform takes full effect in 2014, more Georgians than ever before will have access to a doctor, life-saving drugs and other important services. The law will increase access to health insurance and reduce the high number of Georgians who now must go without treatment or seek expensive emergency care when they get sick or injured. That care is ultimately paid for by those with insurance through higher premiums.

Georgia has the fifth-highest number of people without insurance in the nation. It ranks poorly on many indicators of health and well-being, such as obesity, low birth weight and infectious disease.

Access to health care is key to addressing these challenges and making sure Georgia’s workforce is healthy, our kids are ready and able to learn, and our seniors can live comfortably.

In its first two years, health reform has:

  • Extended health insurance to nearly 1,500 Georgians who were previously denied because of pre-existing conditions such as cancer or diabetes.
  • Covered 85,000 young adults — who are less likely to have insurance than those in other age groups — by allowing them to stay on their parents’ health plans.
  • Increased access to free preventive health care for millions of Georgians with private health insurance or Medicare.
  • Saved money on prescription drugs for more than 143,000 Georgians who rely on Medicare.
  • Eliminated “lifetime limits” in insurance plans of more than 3 million Georgians. They don’t have to worry that serious illness will tap out benefits or leave them bankrupt.

The law does all this while preserving the way most Georgians already get coverage —through their jobs — and while saving Georgia taxpayers at least $100 million.

The year 2014 will bring even more benefits to Georgia.

For the first time, no insurance company will deny a Georgian coverage or charge exorbitant rates because of a pre-existing condition. Thanks to the law, kids may no longer be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition.

New federal tax credits and a competitive marketplace called an exchange will help more Georgians shop for and afford private health insurance.

Medicaid will additionally cover more than 600,000 low-income adults who have few, if any, realistic options for health care beyond hospital emergency rooms and free clinics.

Federal funds will pay for the majority of the Medicaid expansion, at least 95 percent over the first six years. Georgia’s modest investment will be well worth it.

New state spending would amount to less than a 3 percent increase over what Georgia would otherwise spend on Medicaid, according to national forecasts.

Furthermore, the federally funded expansion will likely generate savings in other programs funded solely with state money.

The new law will bring other federal resources to Georgia’s community health centers, expand home and community care as an alternative to costly hospitals and nursing homes, and help communities address obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

The Affordable Care Act is not perfect. No law ever is. But it’s a crucial step in fixing a health care system that now leaves nearly 50 million Americans without coverage each year.

Timothy Sweeney is director of health policy, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

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