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The Trump administration recently announced it would not allow a special enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, effectively ending any opportunity for the nearly 28 million uninsured Americans and over 100,000 Mainers to gain coverage during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they directed hospitals to pull from the recent stimulus funds to provide care to coronavirus patients, funding meant to offset operating costs, not cover patient care.
This directive is inadequate and has led to continued calls from the president of the American Medical Association, nonpartisan research groups, and legislators to open the insurance exchanges. Maine’s congressional representatives are in particularly strong positions to exercise leadership during this crisis and provide solutions that prevent our uninsured neighbors from succumbing unnecessarily to the illness.
What does the administration’s decision to not open exchanges mean for the millions of uninsured? It presents an unimaginable choice between surviving this unforeseen crisis or losing their life savings. The failure to open these exchanges will likely lead many to delay or avoid necessary care and cause unnecessary hospitalizations, intensive care visits, and deaths.
How have we become a society that accepts forcing such a decision?
How have we allowed our right to health to become tied to our job, jobs that can be cut by the tens of millions on a moment’s notice at no fault of our own?
How have we elected a government that has bailed out American airlines before ensuring free medical treatment during a global pandemic?
We must all thoughtfully answer these questions, but today we must act. We must demand an opportunity for our fellow citizens to enroll in lifesaving coverage for a disease that no one could have predicted at the time they chose whether to enroll. Eleven states have expanded their own exchanges, but for 38 that use the federal marketplaces, including Maine, the options are limited.
We have seen the hope of bipartisanship during this crisis and we must resist viewing this as a political decision. Opening the exchanges is not a win for Obamacare, it is a win for public health and for human life. More insured neighbors means healthier neighbors, and by extension healthier neighborhoods. It means neighbors with better access to health information and better ability to help with flattening the curve.
If the administration refuses to extend protections to our most vulnerable, we must demand our legislators fill the gap. The previous three bills to address the coronavirus crisis have failed to include mandated open enrollment. U.S. House leadership has made it clear a fourth relief bill is likely on the way and must ensure it includes opening of the health exchanges. Sen. Susan Collins offers a strong swing vote in the Senate should such a bill arrive, and she should vote “yes” to ensure none of her constituents die of coronavirus due to lack of insurance.
The small cost of opening the insurance marketplace pales in comparison to the trillions of dollars already spent fighting the pandemic. The costs for the uninsured will eventually be paid regardless of whether we expand coverage proactively. The virus does not discriminate based on whether a monthly premium has been paid. The question is simply whether these fellow Americans will still have their lives once the bills are paid.
We have seen the power of solidarity across the country and around the world. People are spending days inside cramped apartments to avoid community spread, cheering loudly out windows to support healthcare workers, and finding new ways to connect with one another through technology that will long outlast the virus.
We are a country that shows such warmth for one another, but have so far failed to show the same commitment to our uninsured neighbors, the same neighbors socially isolating, cheering, and connecting with the rest of us to get through these trying times. Let us stand for them as we have stood for so many, and let us make this moment a shift in whom we believe deserves a right to health.
Carlton Lawrence of Saco is a student at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Kennedy School.
Watch: 283 ventilators are not being used yet in Maine