Older Mainers need Medicaid expansion

Posted May 20, 2013, at 12:46 p.m.

Lately, the news has highlighted the opportunity to expand health care coverage in Maine. Right now, our state has the chance to help thousands of Mainers who have lost their jobs or are barely getting by in jobs without health insurance. An illness or accident impacting these individuals could cause financial disaster, and one from which they may not be able to recover during their working lives. It is time for our legislators to listen to the voices of the hard working Mainers who need our state to seize this opportunity.

It is important to note that federal dollars are already set aside for Maine to expand health care. Under the Affordable Care Act, Maine can accept federal dollars to assist residents who have lost their health insurance and allow them to get Medicaid health coverage if their incomes are less than $15,000 a year or 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

About 69,500 Maine people not currently insured could qualify for health care coverage if this measure is approved. Many who would benefit are between the ages of 50 and 64 and not yet eligible for Medicare. By accepting these federal funds, the state will help more than 16,300 Mainers in this age group who currently have no health benefits and are struggling financially, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Having access to affordable health care coverage is especially important for these older adults who are not yet eligible for Medicare. Losing one’s job can be frightening and financially devastating at the best of times. For workers over the age of 50, there are elements that make this situation even more of a concern.

AARP studies show that it takes longer for older workers to re-enter the job force compared to their younger counterparts. In fact, once they lose their jobs, older workers face unemployment lasting, on average, more than a year.

Leaving people uninsured and without access to primary and preventive care can jeopardize even the most careful preparation for health and financial security in later life. We know of too many people in our state whose nest eggs have eroded because their health care costs surpassed their savings. Accepting these federal dollars will help put it to an end for many of our friends and family grappling with their living expenses and putting their own health care needs on hold.

The expanded health coverage would provide access to both primary and preventive care such as medical screenings and treatment for chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. With access to affordable coverage, residents would be less likely to seek care in an emergency room, which, in most cases, is the most expensive way to receive health care.

The financial benefit of accepting these federal dollars for our state is huge. Under the law, the federal government will pay the entire cost of covering newly eligible individuals for three years beginning in 2014 and 90 percent starting in 2020. This would provide health care coverage to thousands of Maine residents who would otherwise be uninsured in 2014.

Accepting federal funds to expand health care coverage would also make sense regarding the hospital settlement issue. Expanding Medicaid is good for the long-term sustainability of fiscal health for Maine’s hospitals since, through this measure, the need for charity care would go down. If Maine does not accept these federal dollars, our hospitals will continue to lose money.

Our Legislature and the governor must put politics aside and do what is best for Maine people. They should support expanding affordable health care services by accepting federal funds for Medicaid.

We should all call our legislators at 1-800-480-3923 and urge them to support this. By acting now, Maine can help nearly 70,000 residents live a healthier life. It’s good for them, good for their families and good for our state.

Roberta Downey serves on the executive council of AARP Maine.

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